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.
This amazing video documents the story of Wounda, one of the more than 160 chimpanzees living at the Jane Goodall Institute’s Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center in the Republic of Congo.
Thanks to the expert care provided at Tchimpounga, Wounda overcame significant adversity and illness and was recently relocated to Tchindzoulou Island, one of three islands that are part of the newly expanded sanctuary. Dr. Jane Goodall was on hand to witness Wounda’s emotional release, and now you can too.
Disclaimer: Please note, that Dr. Goodall and the Jane Goodall Institute do not endorse handling or interfering with wild chimpanzees.
from the Jane Goodall Institute
Those who wander in the world avowedly and purposely in pursuit of happiness, who view every scene of present joy with an eye to what may succeed, certainly are more liable to disappointment, misfortune and unhappiness, than those who give up their fate to chance and take the goods and evils of fortune as they come, without making happiness their study, or misery their foresight.
-Frances Burney (1752–1840), British author.
A BRAIN SCAN STUDY AT MIT SUGGESTS THAT ENTREPRENEURS ARE MORE LIKELY TO USE BOTH SIDES OF THEIR BRAINS WHEN MAKING DECISIONS.
Your widgets are selling slow and steady. But the kids are demanding widgets with Wi-Fi. Should you bet the farm on a new product line or concentrate on incremental improvements in widget production?
Our brains have two basic problem-solving strategies. Exploitation means taking advantage of what you already know, concentrating deeply on a current task to optimize performance and efficiency. Exploration means taking a step back from the task at hand to allow your mind to roam flexibly among alternatives. Leadership in the age of flux calls for “ambidextrous” minds that can switch back and forth between the two strategies when called for. A new study from MIT suggests that one component of this ambidextrousness involves tapping your creative and logical sides at the same time.
Researchers from the neuroscience department and business school collaborated to scan the brains of 63 subjects, divided between self-described entrepreneurs and managers, when engaged in a game. The game involved virtual slot machines; to maximize returns you had to decide when to keep playing the same machine (an exploitative choice) or try a new one (an explorative choice).
The entrepreneurs in the study, perhaps surprisingly, weren’t any more likely to engage in exploration. But when they did, they were more likely to activate both the right and left sides of their frontal cortex. Managers mainly stuck to the left side, which is associated with logic and structured thinking. The right side, on the other hand, is associated with creativity and emotion.
Successful decision-making isn’t necessarily about doing more exploration than exploitation. It’s in the timing–knowing when to shift between the two forms of thinking. A question for further research is whether entrepreneurs’ brains function this way because of the kind of decisions they’re used to making, or whether people with these more coherent brains are more likely to end up as entrepreneurs. “It’s a nature versus nurture question,” said Professor Maurizio Zollo, the lead author of the study.
-BY ANYA KAMENETZ
It’s hard to explain, but for me it’s that the sense of being part of some story where you are the protagonist kind of fizzles out unceremoniously and leaves you drifting for the rest of forever.
As a kid, you’re on a path, there’s a plan laid out for you, and whether you intentionally break from the plan or follow it to the letter, there’s this linear progression of growth, and an ultimate goal to strive for. You have allies, you have enemies, you have trials that you pass or fail, you have moments of catharsis, etc. You feel like part of a beautiful narrative, like the heroes in movies and books and tv shows and stories. You feel like there’s a right and a wrong way to go, and some ultimate fate waiting for you at the end that will sum up what all of it meant.
When you get to be an adult, that illusion crumbles away as you realize that you don’t have a narrative, there is no path or plan, things aren’t always linear, and you’re nobody’s hero. There are no allies, because friends can be both good and bad for you simultaneously. There are no enemies, because frankly no one cares enough to wage a personal war for long. You don’t have a destiny. You make choices that are more a product of random chance than you want to admit, and sometimes the consequences make sense, sometimes they don’t. You may flounder around in a bunch of different directions for many years, ultimately not making any progress, and having nothing of import to show for it. You’re not a good person or an evil person – you’re just an ant wandering around looking for crumbs. No, worse than an ant, because an ant has a purpose in life, to serve its queen and colony. You can choose to align yourself with a purpose, but it may never fulfill you or reward you. And nobody will be waiting with a shiny gold medal for you if you stick to it.
Life as an adult seems less and less like an exciting adventure story and more and more like a delerious, confusing fog of random developments and passing phases that raise more questions than they answer.
Edit: I somehow put my first edit in the middle of the text, which made it weird. But it said thank you very much for the gold and comments. I appreciate all the insights and solidarity, and the disagreement too.
I haven’t always felt this way about adulthood, and I probably won’t always feel exactly this way. It’s not as if everything’s hopeless, or that I’ll never try to find a direction for my life. It’s just that the realization of how small your impact actually is, and that you are not destined for anything great, and how subject you are to forces bigger than yourself – that’s a tough pill to swallow.