Envy, social comparison, non-envy
My empirical work focuses on envy, particularly it's benign and malicious forms. I was inspired by van de Ven, Zeelenberg, and Pieters (2009). The Dutch language has separate words for benign and malicious envy, which helped frame their research.
Malicious envy: hostility toward the target, appraisal that the disparity is unfair, low confidence in one's ability to close the disparity
Benign envy: still an unpleasant, negative emotion (not admiration), but focused on self-improvement, greater effort, closing the gap
They characterized malicious envy as leveling down, bringing the target down, while benign envy is leveling up, bringing yourself up to their level of achievement or whatever it is.
Something I've been thinking about lately is perhaps a more generalized malice or hostility toward people who stand out, speak out, or invoke certain ideals / ethical principles. That last bit seems to be a forceful induction.
Here's what I'm talking about:
1. Judith Curry says climate scientists need to better communicate the uncertainty, need to be more responsible and so forth.
2. A scientist responds with "so you think you're the one to drive this" or "so you think you're better than us."
It's that last part, the "you think you're better than us" that has always struck me. Judy wasn't the first time I had seen that kind of thing. Some people are responding to idealists, at least outspoken idealists (who are the only kind they're going to know about) with an instant social comparison. And it's not just social comparison. There's a bit of extra content in there – it's not just "this person is better than me", but "this person thinks they're better than me." It doesn't necessarily concede that the idealist is "better", just that they think they are.
That response has always struck me, that element of the other person thinking they're better than oneself. It's not obvious to me why we would respond that way to an idealist or crusader. They generally aren't saying anything about being better than anyone. I suppose it's easy to draw out that implication, though it's optional.
I've seen it in graduate school, especially with female students toward an especially attractive female student. How women treat women is worthy of a lot of research in itself. I once heard a grad student say "She thinks she's better than me" based on the person's way of standing. I was so puzzled. I asked why do you think she thinks she's better than you? That seems so specific. And a lot to infer from a stance. The whole "X thinks he/she is better than me" framework puzzles me. I never think someone thinks they're better than me. I routinely think someone is actually better than me in some specific skill or domain, but I don't really have a concept of comprehensive betterness as a person, unless we're comparing regular good people to bank robbers. It doesn't occur to me that someone thinks that.
The social comparison aspect reminds me of what Sonja Lyubomirsky wrote in her book about how she and Lee Ross hypothesized that happier people engage in downward social comparison – that this would be a reason why they were happier. To their surprise, they found that happier people tend not to engage in social comparison at all.
But what triggers the hostility to idealists? It looks somewhat like malicious envy, but I don't know that it satisfies the definition of envy. There's isn't anything obvious that the other person has, unless it's about fame or attention, though in many of these cases there isn't a lot of that.
Stepping back, envy makes sense as a signal, even an evolved mechanism, because it carries important information – that it is possible to be doing better than one is doing. It's possible because here is a person who proves it, someone with more resources, more acclaim, more money, meat, fur, whatever. This might be the most efficient way for a human to learn that it is possible to achieve more on some consequential dimension.
I suppose an idealist could signal to me that it's possible to be a better person, maybe that I should have attended to the things they're talking about, that I have failed to be a good person. And that appraisal gets converted to "they think they're better than me". That seems pretty coarse – I'll have to think about it more. Clearly lots of people respond to idealists with support, even worship depending on the context. Yet some people seem to dispositionally respond with malice, and the social comparison seems to be a part of that process.
I'd really like to dig into that process. I don't think there's a lot of research on people's responses to idealists, virtues in others, etc. Feel free to jump ahead of me on the data collection. One of the things that may matter is that some idealists are seen as overly preachy, insufferable, while some aren't. So characteristics of the target might moderate effects.
I've seen similar responses to my efforts, but I think I've seen a lot more directed at Judy. I'm pretty sure some of the abuse she gets is due to the fact that she's a woman, so I may never experience quite as much. A physicist who had said something similar to her asked me "So you're the one to change social science?" or something along those lines. I was so puzzled by that mentality. What if the answer is yes? What if it's no? Is it even answerable? It seemed to be meant as "so you think you're better than us" except it was accompanied by "do your peers agree with you?" That focus on peers and what other people think was also very strange to me. We wouldn't be able to answer that question meaningfully in any way that would predict the validity or truth of someone's work at any arbitrary time point. It would be much better to just evaluate their work. Science as a cliquish peer-focused culture is obviously going to have some problems and dysfunctions compared to a scientific culture that prizes independent thought, integrity, and good epistemology.
Those responses, that non-engagement with substance, just defaulting to social comparison and looking around for what other people think, seem like they might be related. If we iterate that and extend it, it would bring every outspoken person down, pull in every outlier, because they will always be in the minority in the beginning, for some arbitrary time period. It reminds me of the Hawaiian saying about crabs in a bucket. It looks like the leveling down process, but without a concrete object of envy. In the streets, it's just called being a hater, but I don't think we have a formal conception of it in social psychology. It might be too rare to document, or perhaps not. There are signs of malice toward achievers all over the culture. That's achievers, but I think there might be a more specific response and process regarding people in a moral domain, idealists, crusaders, outspoken reformers, and so forth. The moral domain might have particular power as an induction, relative to just achieving a lot of success. We'll see.
Separately, on the issue of gender-specific phenomena, a female clinical researcher shared a story with me, as something that could be the basis of organizational research. In a large company, there was a fast-rising woman. She was very smart and very qualified, with a law degree and maybe an MBA. And she was very beautiful, which the researcher thought was the key element. When this thoroughly qualified woman rose to a top position, other women in the company attributed her rise to sleeping her way to the top, or to her beauty. Anecdotally, there seems to be a lot going on in how older women see younger women, especially if they're beautiful. (Evolutionary psychologists can easily build a narrative to explain this.) Female executives have told me that the male mentorship model (in the private sector) is different from the female mentorship model. In particular, the hypothesis is that older men see a young man as a way to leave a legacy, while older women see a younger woman as a threat. This will have to be explored empirically, but it makes sense.
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José L. Duarte
Social Psychology, Scientific Validity, and Research Methods.