Successful People Fear Being Envied and Overcompensate

Envy, which is a negative emotion, seems to have some positive effects, as seen in this study carried out in the Netherlands recently.  The researchers graded envy as either “malicious” or “benign” and checked people’s tendency to help others who might envy them. Successful people were more forthcoming in helping those who might envy them for their success. This tendency to help was almost negligible in normal situations but increased toward those who were likely to be envious of them; it was more a pacifying act than voluntary.

Being successful brings a lot of positive feelings of happiness. However, it is also accompanied by the fear of being envied by others. Envy is a very strong feeling that could easily turn to hatred. Earning others’ displeasure and envy is certainly not very desirable. Hence, we notice a prosocial behavior by accomplished people expressing a desire to help and showing benevolence towards those who are not as accomplished. Malicious envy is viewed as more harmful, as it mostly arises when the achievement is thought to be undeserved. Underplaying the benefits or sharing could be a solution but is not feasible always. This analysis could present ways to channelize negative emotions like envy to reap harmonious social outcomes.

* All three experiments involved a monetary bonus awarded to some participants to evoke feelings of jealousy/envy in their test partners. The test was to check the willingness of participants to help the partner in fear of jealousy.
* Experiment 1: One set of participants received the bonus while their partner did not. The former was then asked to help their partners with advice for a fictional problem.
* Experiment 2: The “bonus-earning” partners were made aware that they had scored one point less than their partners, creating a situation of undeserved benefit. After they were asked to help their partners, they were quizzed on whether they felt their partners envied them maliciously or benignly.
* Experiment 3: Only one set of participants received the bonus. Their partners deliberately toppled a set of 15 erasers to check whether the “bonus-earners” helped pick them up. In this experiment, the two partners came face-to-face, unlike previous experiments where they never met.

Key findings
* Experiment 1: Only 60 percent of the control group, as against the 83 percent in the “envied” group, helped partners, especially those who feared malicious envy.
* Experiment 2: Undeserved success led to fear of malicious envy and, hence, prolonged help. Deserved success also recorded expected jealousy but not fear.
* Experiment 3: Only 10 percent of the control group helped pick up the erasers while 38 percent of those who feared malicious envy helped.

Next steps
This study evaluated one of the coping strategies in people who fear being envied, that is, a tendency to help the less fortunate. Other strategies like advising, underplaying one’s achievements and others need to be assessed. The generalized approach of the STTUC model (Sensitivity about being the Target of a Threatening Upward Comparison) should be considered while understanding the aftermath of outperforming.

Inequalities are often encountered in teamwork. The psychology behind handling such situations gives an insight into effective team management for better overall performance. The current study gives a fresh perspective of transforming a negative emotion into positive results. These experiments show clearly that the fear of envy against another’s success, whether deserved or undeserved, can encourage a person to help the unfortunate or the less successful. An impending fear of malicious envy seems to trigger a higher help response than a harmless level of envy. Thus, this fear of being envied could steer interactions towards a higher state of harmony and could be utilized to strengthen group performances.

For More Information:
Warding Off the Evil Eye: When the Fear of Being Envied Increases Prosocial Behavior
Publiation Journal: Psychological Science, October 2010
By Niels van de Ven; Marcel Zeelenberg; Tilburg Institute for Behavioral Economics Research and Department of Social Psychology, Tilburg University, the Netherlands

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