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Mental Model: Bias from Envy and Jealousy

“It is not greed that drives the world,
but envy.”
— Warren Buffett

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It is a fact of life that we are not equal. Not biologically, not culturally.

Some inequities come from flawed governing systems, but most are simply due to luck — the vagaries of life. Some of us are born healthier, prettier and smarter than others, some will encounter opportunities to become extremely wealthy, and some will simply be born at the right place and time. Just as many will be born without such good fortune.

It’s difficult to imagine that these differences will not matter in our everyday interactions. When you think of how natural the differences among us are, you should quickly come to realize the potential power and frequency that bias from envy and jealousy can have on world affairs. It’s built deeply into the human condition, from birth.

The concept of jealousy is as old as modern humanity itself and has permeated our culture worldwide. We are advised not to brag too much, for it can evoke feelings of envy and jealousy in others. Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and other religions all have at least one cautionary tale about the destructive consequences of being captivated by these emotions as well as the dangers of being the one who is envied.

The stoics knew all about envy, and warned against its consequences constantly. Seneca described a wise man as one who is “Content with his lot, whatever it be, without wishing for what he has not …”

Tales of envy extend as far back as ancient times.

In one of the oldest recorded myths, the tall, slender and handsome Egyptian God Osiris marries his beautiful sister and brings civilization and prosperity to Egypt and the world. However, Osiris also has an ugly younger brother Seth who hates him. Seth envies Osiris for his attractiveness, power and success. Seth’s wife becomes so attracted to Osiris that she tricks him into sleeping with her and bears Osiris’s child. Unable to deal with his envy and jealousy, Seth traps and kills Osiris.

Even though the myth is several thousand years old, the problems caused by envy and jealousy can be just as real and destructive today. To avoid these feelings and becoming a victim of them is an important reason to examine them a little closer.

The Two Types of Envy

It has been said that there are two types of envy – a good type and a bad type.

The first type is the feeling of inferiority that motivates a person to improve herself. This bias exerts its influence by framing the success of others as a learning opportunity for ourselves. Think about watching an inspirational movie, or reading a book about an inspirational figure, someone who you feel dwarfs your own capabilities and accomplishments. Frequently, our envy leads us to imitate that hero in a quest for self-improvement.

The other type, though, is malicious envy, which motivates the envious to take good things away from others. For Aristotle, the evil of malicious envy lay in its desire to lessen the good in the world and experience joy at another’s misfortune (also called Schadenfreude which, mysteriously enough, has no equivalent word in English.)

To the malicious envier, ridding oneself of envy requires taking away from the other — the beautiful car or house should be stolen or damaged, the virtuous person corrupted or killed and the beautiful face of someone ruined or covered. The malicious envier believes that those things should be his rather than theirs. He, after all, deserves it more.

Lord Chesterfield once said: “People hate those who make them feel their own inferiority.”

This can be true. While the envied need not cause the deprivation of the other, the envier may still experience anger or resentment, a sense of unfairness, which may lead to feelings of hate. The relation between envy and hate is pretty close, if you observe the world closely.

“The relation between envy and hate is pretty close, if you observe the world closely.” Click To Tweet

“Envy is pain at the good fortune of others.
We envy those who are near us in time, place, age or reputation.”
— Aristotle

There are two basic determinants of the type of envy that will be experienced: the degree of belief that one has been treated unfairly and the belief that one’s disadvantage is one’s own fault.

Common sense, and data presented by Peter Salovey in his book The Psychology of Envy and Jealousy, suggest that the second determinant, one’s belief in one’s own shortcomings, plants the motivation for improvement.

The belief that one has been treated unfairly has the opposite effect – it results in feelings of anger and resentment. You become a negatively coiled spring.

Social Comparison

“Injustice is relatively easy to bear, it is justice that hurts.”
— Henry Louis Mencken

At the heart of envy is social comparison, which is a powerful influence in our self-concept. Think about it – much of our self-definition comes from comparison with others. We can’t define ourselves as great singers, if there is no one else around who sings worse than we do. Qualities like intelligence, beauty and skills are relative and thus when we compare poorly in comparison to our peers, our self-esteem suffers. Judith Rich Harris argues that this is a core part of our personality development.

An inflamed self-esteem is a good first step towards envy. We experience envy when the quality we feel inferior about threatens our self-concept. We may not even be aware that we are lacking a particular quality, but the object of our envy heightens our awareness of our deprivation.

Think about it this way: Do you feel envy when you see a great javelin thrower at the Olympics? Probably not, because, for most of us, success at javelin throwing isn’t a core part of our self-concept. But let’s say you were a competitive javelin thrower — might you feel a little envy if you saw someone much better than you competing at the Olympics?

Thus, envy of others is always a reflection of something we feel about ourselves. We’re not rich enough, or smart enough, or beautiful enough; we don’t have enough possessions, enough attention, enough success.

Jealousy

If there is a way to define jealousy in its most narrow scope, then it would probably be the feeling of anxious insecurity that follows the perception of threat to a relationship which provides important attention. Perceiving such a threat makes a person feel insecure about the status of the relationship and thus also about the aspects of the self that are sustained by it.

We do not become jealous when our partners die or move across the country or quit the relationship without getting into a new one. What is always true for jealousy, unlike envy, is that it involves a triangle of relationships between the self, the partner and the rival. Therefore, when talking about jealousy it is important to realize its key characteristic — the threat of losing something to someone else.

There is the hypothesis that at the heart of feelings of jealousy lies our need to feel needed. This need exists because relationships define certain aspects of who we are.

We like to think of ourselves as sexually attractive, funny or otherwise worthy persons. However, when there is no one to be funny with or no one who is attracted to us, our self-definition of funny or attractive dissipates. We need the others not only to reaffirm these aspects, but also to create them. Humans are deeply social creatures — how we feel about ourselves has to do with our interactions with others. There are no personality traits in a vacuum.

“How we feel about ourselves has to do with our interactions with others.” Click To Tweet

Jealousy is not limited to romantic relationships — jealousy exists between siblings, co-workers and even friends. Yet there is a reason why we get so caught up in romantic jealousy.

Someone stealing away our chess partner’s time does not threaten our self-concept nearly as much someone stealing away our girlfriend’s time. We have a biological need for a romantic other that eclipses our need for a chess partner; feelings of deprival are intensified.

Children can also experience intense jealousy. The most important relationship for a child is that with his parents, which is why sibling rivalry can sometimes be so fierce. Naturally, as the child reaches adolescence and develops serious friendships and romantic relationships, the sibling jealousy tends to dissipate.

***

There are several notable commonalities and differences between jealousy and envy.

With both envy and jealousy we experience loss of self-esteem stemming from social comparison. In the case of envy the loss comes from our self-appraisal, whereas in the case of jealousy it comes from the appraisal by others. Therefore, when experiencing jealousy we are often left wondering what is it that the other person finds in our rival? whereas in the case of envy we know exactly what we’re missing.

Another common quality of both envy and jealousy is how extreme they can be in modern life. For instance, ongoing discussions about employee salaries and CEO salaries. In many workplaces this has resulted in a salary non-disclosure policy within the job contract. Still, when the compensation data is leaked, and some perceived inequality is discovered, there is often outrage.

These effects are observed in workplaces as diverse as universities, investment banks, corporates and law firms. In order to keep the air clear of envy and jealousy, numerous firms and government agencies have gone as far as opting for the same base compensation per seniority level, regardless of employee contribution. Berkshire Hathaway chooses not to disclose the compensation of most of its top people for fear of creating organization-wide envy, and CEO Warren Buffett credits his ridiculously low salary with keeping envy of his success to a minimum.

***

An important question remains: How should we deal with envy at a personal level?

There are three ways to overcome envy.

The first is to focus on the differences between you and the other person, rather than the similarities. Examine the situation — you are not as alike as you think you are.

The second is more difficult, but we certainly find we can do it in other contexts, as discussed above. Shape your malicious envy into a drive to improve and learn. From every person that we envy there is a virtue that we can learn from.

Thirdly, envy can be avoided (over time) with simple repetitive denial. Don’t let yourself become envious of others’ deserved success. Stop the feeling in its tracks, if you can. As for undeserved success, remind yourself that the world is not a fair place that owes us what we wish. Remind yourself that the success of others does not reflect on you and does not take away from you. Envy is a somewhat childish emotion, one that hurts us as we get older.

Jealousy is more difficult to overcome since we are not fully in control of the needs or perceptions of others. There is little we can do to make others appreciate us when they don’t, but we can learn to accept that we will not always be everything for everyone. Just as with envy – jealousy can be an important trigger for increased self-awareness as well as positive change. After all, a little jealousy can be a good thing, for we may be reminded to appreciate what we have.

The sins of jealously and envy drive huge swaths of human behavior, but if we work to understand it and see it in ourselves and others, it doesn’t have to drive ours.

***

“Man will do many things to get himself loved;
he will do all things to get himself envied.”
— Mark Twain

Envy is a great cause of human suffering. Charlie Munger points out why: “Envy is a really stupid sin because it’s the only one you could never possibly have any fun at. There’s a lot of pain and no fun. Why would you want to get on that trolley?”

Why indeed.

While envy and jealously are powerful drivers of behaviour on their own, they become more powerful when mixed with ego, greed, and fear. These emotions can weigh the mind down and dramatically diminish our ability to think with our full mental capacity. They can also hone our focus. These emotions have also motivated people to do great things.

And in case you’re wondering how you can avoid being the source of envy for others? Aristotle had an answer: “The best way to avoid envy is to deserve the success you get.”

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Still Interested? Check up on some other mental models and biases.

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