Social and behavioural

Alex Haslam & Steve Reicher – our Envy

This post is part of the Research Digest’s Sin week. Each day for Seven days we’ll be posting a confession, a new sin and a way to be good.

08 February 2011

By Christian Jarrett

Envy is a terrible thing and a shameful secret. Which of us has not felt a twinge of envy when a colleague gets a paper published in a journal by which we ourselves have been rejected or when someone else gets a prize to which we ourselves aspire? Who hasn’t smiled and uttered congratulations to the recipient while secretly thinking “Why them? Why not me?”… and then immediately felt rotten for having had these thoughts?

There are few relationships which are immune from such ambivalences – and, since we are in confessional mood, we should admit that this includes our own. The younger of the two of us (Haslam, pictured left, now at the University of Exeter) remembers well the first time that he heard the older one (Reicher) give a seminar at the University of St Andrews, where he is now based

Haslam was an undergraduate there, and Reicher was at the time a post-doc at nearby Dundee. The seminar was delivered with passion and commitment, but Haslam still remembers (with shame) his comment to a peer that the seminar was far too showy for his tastes. “Science should not be confused with entertainment”, he opined dismissively (or something to that effect). In truth, though, this was naked envy.

Now, though, having worked closely with Reicher for the best part of a decade, Haslam boasts of the capacity for his collaborator and friend to entertain and educate the most diverse audiences. And this cuts both ways. Just the other day, Haslam appeared on a radio program talking about work the two of us have done on leadership. Was Reicher envious of his colleague’s limelight? Not at all, he was delighted at the verve and wit with which Haslam argued his case.

Does this mean that we have mellowed over age and become nicer people? We doubt it. For we still rage at the success of certain others and take pleasure when others talk them down. What all this reveals, we think, is not something about us, but something about the nature of envy.

Bertand Russell famously remarked that envy consists of seeing things “never in themselves, but only in their relations”. For those of us who aren’t philosophers, this observation is a little bit cryptic, but its meaning is clarified by the title of a forthcoming book by the Princeton social psychologist Susan Fiske: Envy Up, Scorn Down.

As discussed in a recent article in American Psychologist, the core point of Fiske’s work is to show that envy is a phenomenon that is grounded in social comparison. In particular, echoing Francis Bacon, she notes that envy tends to emerge from social comparisons that involve status differences. It arises when individuals (and groups) aspire to the conditions of higher-status others (their privilege, their power, their insouciance) and — potentially at least — are disparaged by those others in turn.

The key term in this analysis is ‘other’. And while Fiske’s own analysis emphasises the point that comparison, and hence envy, are ‘natural’, it is important to note that the definition of ‘other’ is rarely fixed or given. Instead, it is negotiated and it changes over the course of ongoing social relations. This is what emerges from our own personal history as, in time, we became a team. It is also a point that emerges from recent research into emotion (including various forms of envy) by Tony Manstead and Russell Spears at Cardiff University.

Thus, while we may envy a high-status colleague (who appears to find publishing in top-tier journals easier than falling off a log) when comparing ourselves to her as another individual, this envy is likely to morph into admiration when our department is being evaluated for the REF and she becomes ‘one of us’. At this point we may envy other departments who outstrip us, but we are unlikely to envy colleagues within our department.

So is envy a sin? And is this sin deadly? As Fiske observes, envy can be toxic, corrosive, and depressing. As Yugeny Yuvtushenko notes, in its darkest form it is an insult to oneself. But it doesn’t have to be — particularly at the group level when envy is grounded in a legitimate sense of collective injustice, and when we work with others to get over it.

The fact that we often do, also tells us something important about ourselves. Not that we are ‘naturally’ sinners, but that the psychological path to virtue is social, developmental, and far from straight and narrow.