We all know that envy is a terrible thing. Envy is what sometimes happens when people compare themselves to others who are in some way superior to them. The envied person might make more money, have more friends, drive a nicer car, be better at a task, etc. Envy arises when the envious person feels frustrated with the difference between themselves and the envied person and wishes to have what the other person has. This is seen as a dispositional trait, meaning that people can vary in how much envy they feel, even when they are in the same situation. For instance some can look at their neighbor’s much larger house and not care, while to others the larger house may be a constant source of discontentment. In most research, envy is looked at in terms of either being envious or not. However, there are actually two types of envy, each with distinct motivational processes and outcomes.
The first type is most consistent with the traditional view of envy. Malicious enviers want what the other person has and attempt to get it by trying to tear the other person down to their level. They may engage in hostile or resentful behavior toward the envied person, try to undermine the envied person’s accomplishments, and revel in the envied persons mishaps and misfortunes. Malicious envy is most common when the envied person is perceived to have unfairly gained their superiority, when the envier feels a lack of control over personal success, and the envier fears failure. In other words, this form of envy occurs when the envied person sets a standard of excellence that the envious person believes is impossible to attain. Thus, the only way to reduce the frustration of being below a standard is to try to drag the standard down.
The second type of envy is known as benign envy. Rather than tearing the envied person down, benign enviers work harder to attain what the envied person has. This form of envy is most common when the envied person is believed to have deserved their advantage, when the envier feels a high sense of control over personal outcomes, and when the envier hopes for success. Essentially, the envious person adopts the superior standard of excellence and strives to achieve it. However, benign envy still carries the same frustration and negative emotions as malicious envy which is why it is considered different than more positive motivations like admiration and role modelling.
This benign envy is clearly the more functional of the two forms. Lange & Crusius (2015) found that among full and half marathon runners who compared themselves to faster runners, those who displayed benign envy were more likely to set a time goal for the race and set faster time goals as well. Presumably due to their faster set goals, on average benign enviers actually had faster times than the malicious enviers. Although it would be much more healthy to admire rather than envy the faster runners (or more successful people in general), benign envy does have motivational function that produces better outcomes.
Lange, J., & Crusius, J. (2015). Dispositional envy revisited: Unraveling the motivational dynamics of benign and malicious envy. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(2), 284-294.