Once upon a time there was a family, the Proctors, who lived in a big property in the outskirts of Salem. There they cultivated their land, raised their children and lived under strict catholic values. Well, that was until John Proctor found himself alone in the barn with their young housekeeper, Abigail Williams, and … ahm … well, you can imagine the rest. Unfortunately, for everyone, Elizabeth Proctor found out about the event, which for John became nothing more than a regretful sin; but, for Abigail, it turned out to be the fuel that inflamed her passion for him. Upon discovering the incident, Elizabeth dismissed the young woman, who through her struggles to deal with Mr. Proctor’s rejection kick started a chain of events that ultimately had him (and others) killed.
It is easy to narrow down Abigail’s emotions to the jealousy she feels towards the man she loved, and, hence, read Arthurs Miller’s play, The Crucible, from that angle. Nevertheless, there is yet another important perspective through which this character can be observed. That of the feeling Elizabeth Proctor elicits in the young woman:envy. Abigail lives in a society where women are not particularly respected and valued, she is an orphan, and depends on the charity of her uncle to have a place to live as well as food to eat. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is a married lady, with children of her own. She is liked by the villagers as a result of her decency, but above all she is loved and respected by John, Abigail’s object of desire.
The Neurocognitive Mechanisms of Envy
Envy is irrational, it’s painful. And that is because it is marked by inadequacy and inferiority; feelings that are sparked by what one perceives as another’s superior possessions, attributes and success 1. It is no wonder why it is argued that envy may be a ‘social-pain’, one that cuts deep into the self. The self that when threatened by the outperformance of another loses sight of its own positive image. Personally, I believe that it is this loss (of positive self-concept) that leads some people to act upon their envy in a negative manner. Spreading out detrimental rumors is an example. I also see this in Abigail Williams, who appears to have lost her sense of pride and morals, and thus has no problem in resorting to mean-spirited ways to get rid of Elizabeth. After all, no Elizabeth, no threat.
Envy, however, gets a bit more obscure than this, as it yields pleasure and satisfaction from the envied person’s troubles. This particular pleasant feeling is called schadenfreude, and when experienced, a certain part of our brain, the ventral striatum, is activated 2. Can you imagine? Being emotionally rewarded at the expense of a specific individual’s misfortune? It was this very feature of envy that inspired Bertrand Russell to pronounce that “of all the characteristics of human nature, this is the most unfortunate one.” Because, you see, when we envy someone, our affective empathy towards them is suspended 3 and, as it appears to me, a malignant ‘survival’ drive sets in.
The Evil Within?
What is more, envy works in very specific ways. I wonder if you ever stopped to think about it. For instance, its target is not selected randomly. Quite the contrary, the envied individual needs to tick a few boxes. And since social comparison is what gives rise to it, the envied individual is one who belongs to a context relevant to the envious person, and is often seen as advantaged. Abigail and Elizabeth’s scenario illustrates this concept quite well, as much as the scenarios of Cain and Abel, and Iago and Othelo. Here, all the former characters saw the latter ones as being favoured within a domain they shared, a perception that the envious individuals held as a threat to their very position in their relevant medium. I laughed when reading Russell’s writings as he raised the question: ‘Reader, have you ever been unwise to the point of complimenting an artist to another artist?’
So, I am sure you get the picture now, correct? Then, picture that someone you envy and reflect on the domains of comparison between you two; the stronger the relevance, the more intense is the feeling (envy). Now, that very image activates your dACC (the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) 4. That is the neurocognitive mechanism of envy itself, right there. The more intense the level of envy you hold for that person the stronger the dACC activation 5 (which, in turn, will make their misfortunes all the more pleasant for you by means of greater schadenfreude) 6. It is the activation of this area that explains the ‘pain’ often attributed to envy. And, there is yet something else that I find particularly interesting here, the findings that report the activation of this same region (ACC) as a reaction to social exclusion 7. There certainly is a lot more to envy than meets the eye.
I believe that the reason as to why envy is a feeling hard to acknowledge (how many times have you blurted out ‘I am envious of such and such’, or even admitted it to yourself?) is a consequence of how it has been portayed throughout history. For example, both in the Jewish and Christian Bibles envy is seen as something that one shall not, as the tenth commandment orders ‘You must not be envious of thy neighbour's goods’. Also, in Buddhism, the feeling has been placed under the 16 Mental Defilements, while the Tao advises us to ‘conceal what people desire in order to not disturb their hearts’. Moreover, I am yet to meet a historical personage who accomplished greatness via the path of envy. These all are elements responsible for turning envy into a taboo subject, as they borrowed its definition from its maddest extremes.
Yet, I am confident to say that envy might be a feeling that at some point in life encourages most of us to set a well-defined goal and make our way towards it. I agree with the psychoanalysis notion which proposes that our innate tendencies (the id) are not entirely bad, but rather simultaneously good and bad. This becomes very clear to me with regard to envy. The threat that comes with it can work as a powerful motivator, this has huge potential to be a good thing. And, while schadenfreude is not exactly the most noble of feelings; well, it is all about not acting upon it. Or, even about counterbalancing it. Have you ever thought of challenging the less noble side of your nature? What about sending a positive empathic message to that individual you envy who is undergoing tribulations? After all he/she has provided you with the personification of the very achievement you desire, by demonstrating that getting there is actually possible. But, of course, such decisions highly depend on the sophistication of one’s character, which directly reflects the values one possesses.
A Remedy for Those with Envious Disposition
At the social level, Hidehiko Takahashi and his colleagues suggest that envy plays a positive part in economic growth when it functions as a performance enhancer 8. Bertrand Russell went as far as to place this feeling at the ‘basis of democracy’ by saying: ‘the passion that has driven democratic forces is the passion of envy’. For me, such observations lend more and more support to the fundamental role the act of comparing plays in sparking envy. This is precisely why Russell, when suggesting a remedy for the envious man, put bluntly: ‘the habit of thinking in terms of comparison is a fatal one’. This is, of course, at the personal level, which is the one I am most interested in.
And this is why this post may be important to you, because it attempts to explain the social, cognitive and emotional mechanisms of envy with the intention of demystifying it. When something is defined by its maddest edges, as Jon Ronson would say, they can become truly frightening. But, the unknown soon becomes less intimidating when we gain insight into it. As fatal as Russell suggests comparative thinking is, for us to stop rationalising in such a way is not just a matter of turning off a switch. Because that is how our mind works. Otherwise, how can we then understand the worth of things? Our judgement of them takes place more by means of comparison than by evaluating their intrinsic value 9. It is just how we make sense of such abstraction. This process is also true in self-evaluation. However, there is something that should never be taken for granted, that should never be ignored: our uniqueness.
Apples & Pears
In the earlier stages of our lives we do need to compare ourselves, for instance, to mum and dad. Because it is through having standards that we begin to develop and form our individuality, without them a child or a young person has no direction to follow, and hence, no action to take. Nevertheless, as we begin to journey on that path, as we face its obstacles and find ways to keep on going, we become progressively unique.
The older we get the more pronounced our individuality becomes, as a result of the course that our lives have taken, the choices we have made and so forth. Making us, therefore, increasingly less comparable to others. So, it is not that thinking in terms of comparison, at the personal level, is fatal. It simply doesn’t make sense. It’s like @insight-out queried in her post, if I am an apple and you are a pear, how can I possibly expect to be like you? She continued to shed light on this through explaining that all I can possibly, sensibly try to be is a juicier, sweeter apple. This is a great metaphor, which, in the words of J.B Peterson, means that in trying to achieve greater goals in life, instead of comparing yourself with who someone else is today, compare yourself to who you were yesterday 10.
Miller, A. (1953). The crucible. New York: Viking Press.
10 Peterson, J. (2018) 12 Rules for life : an antidote to chaos. Canada: Random House.
Russel, B. (1930).The conquest of happiness. London, George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
1 to 9 Takahashi, Hidehiko & Kato, Motoichiro & Matsuura, Masato & Mobbs, Dean & Suhara, Tetsuya & Okubo, Yoshiro. (2009). When Your Gain Is My Pain and Your Pain Is My Gain: Neural Correlates of Envy and Schadenfreude. Science (New York, N.Y.).323. 937-9. 10.1126/science.1165604.