Envy Up, Scorn Down: How Comparison Divides Us
Comparison compels people, even as it stresses, depresses, and divides us. Comparison is only natural, but the collateral damage reveals envy upward and scorn downward, and these emotions, arguably, poison people and their relationships. Summaries of several experiments—using questionnaire, psychometric, response-time, electromyographic, and neuroimaging data—illustrate the dynamics of envy up and scorn down, as well as proposing how to mitigate their effects. Initial studies suggest the importance of status. Other data show how scorn down minimizes thought about another’s mind; power deactivates mental concepts. Regarding envy up, other studies demonstrate that Schadenfreude (malicious joy) targets envied outgroups. However, counterstereotypic information, empathy, and outcome dependency can mitigate both scorn and envy.
Americans like to think that we are beyond social class, that only Europeans make class distinctions, as a remnant of feudalism or maybe a byproduct of restricted mobility. We often hear that Americans mostly identify as middle class, that we offer exceptional opportunity, and that hard work pays off (Correspondents of The New York Times, 2005; Lareau & Conley, 2008). Unfortunately, these cultural myths are less true than we would like to believe. Received wisdom claims that most Americans feel middle class, but this has not held true since some of the first Gallup polls in 1939 (Gallup Poll News Service, 1939; Hout, 2008). Mostly, we split evenly between working class and middle class, leaving 10%–20% to the upper and lower extremes. Although people’s ability to move above their parents’ social class is limited and no better than it is in other places, we all endorse the American dream (Kluegel amp; Smith, 1986). Our collective belief is that America offers opportunity, so the system is fair. In a meritocracy, people get what they deserve. The irony is that if we think people get the social class they deserve, then we should value elites. If we believe in meritocracy, why is being elite a liability in election years? Perhaps upward comparison breeds envious resentment because people think elites look down on them with scorn.
Social class is just one example of social comparison. Psychological science is especially suited to address interpersonal side effects of comparison. As in our political life, so too do envy and scorn invade our social lives. People do not always admit to comparison with friends, family, and colleagues, but we all do it. To be sure, people differ in their proclivity, but comparison is pervasive. People compare to evaluate themselves, to improve their standing, and to enhance their self-esteem (e.g., Taylor amp; Lobel, 1989;Wood, 1989).
If comparison contaminates, envy and scorn are worse, but for better reasons. Comparison at least can be adaptive, providing information and motivation, but the feelings that follow can be poisonous. Envy says, “I wish I had what you have,” but it implies “And I wish you did not have it.” Scorn says, “You are unworthy of my attention, but I know you are down there somewhere.”
Comparison emotions can corrupt the comparer. Envy humiliates and angers people (see Smith, 2008, for recently collected research). Feeling below someone makes people feel ashamed at their own inadequacy. If a peer can succeed, then people feel inadequate for not doing equally well. Envy also makes people angry at the injustice of their low-status positions. Those who succeeded must have had unfair advantages. Envy correlates with depression, unhap-piness, and low self-esteem.
Scorn likewise scars the perpetrator. Power self-centers people (Keltner, Gruenfeld, amp; Anderson, 2003), so power can desensitize the high status to the needs of others.1 Powerful people can be clueless about subordinates (Fiske, 1993; Goodwin, Gubin, Fiske, amp; Yzerbyt, 2000). Powermakes people focus on their own goals and needs, neglecting people with less power, unless they are useful somehow (Fiske amp; Berdahl, 2007; Guinote, 2008). Thus, downward scorn contaminates interactions.
If envy and scorn are so toxic, how does their poison play out between people? In an ongoing program of research, my colleagues and I explore the interpersonal dynamics of status divides caused by societal comparisons. We set out to shed some light on the comparisons that divide people from each other, focusing on envy up and scorn down. Even first encounters in psychology experiments reflect the stuff of social comparisons. The research program summarized here begins to describe the interpersonal dynamics of people making sense of each other, in the context of contrasting social status. Using various methods, from online vignette studies to neuroimaging, we hope to triangulate on envy and scorn, as well as discover some cures to get people beyond comparing.