Jealousy and Envy—The Evil Stepsisters

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Photo by Khaled Ghareeb on Unsplash

The Story

A friend of mine was once devastated by the scathing betrayal of someone she considered a loyal and trusted friend. She was surprised and shocked, and of course deeply hurt.

As I comforted her during this time, she kept asking the question over and over, “Why? Why would she do something like that?”

My friend’s confusion was genuine, but the motive was crystal clear to me. And finally, I gently answered, “It was all about jealousy.”

Years later, my friend reminds me of this conversation from time to time. She’s still amazed at how clearly I saw this when she couldn’t. But really, it was obvious.

Think back. Have you ever celebrated a success, but had a nagging feeling that others were less than happy for you? Sibling rivalry is a perfect example.

Spiritual leader and motivational speaker Marianne Williamson once said, “There are two things that will bring out darkness in others—your darkness … and your light.”

There are numerous examples of this, sacred and profane. From the martyrdom of saints to the fame and infamy of a rock band, we see jealousy and its hateful manifestations along the whole spectrum of human experience. I’ll leave an analysis of the martyrs to theologians, but let me tackle one example in the rock world.

The “Nickelback Phenomenon” refers to this rock band’s paradoxical dichotomy of simultaneously being one the world’s most popular, and yet seemingly most hated groups. More frequently, and arguably more intensely, they appear as the target of internet memes and twitter jokes. While everyone, famous and obscure, saint and sinner, can be the target of brutal criticism, Nickelback appears to attract a disproportionate amount. So much so that they have been called “a lightning rod for haters.”

It’s so ubiquitous that it’s even drawn the attention of academics. Salli Anttonen of the University of Eastern Finland conducted a study analyzing the critical reviews of the band from 2000-2014. But even her supposedly unbiased research was titled, Hypocritical Bullshit Performed Through Gritted Teeth.

I suppose they do grit their teeth a lot, but in a sexy, bad-boy kind of way that is a signature of the genre. But I digress…

Even Anttonen, within her critical review, cannot escape the contradiction of this much-loved, much-hated band. While she analyzes the hate, there is no denying the love.

Nickelback has sold over 50 million albums worldwide. They have played to over eight million fee-paying ticket holders on their international tours. They were named the second biggest-selling foreign act of the 2000s in the US behind The Beatles.

Anttonen’s conclusion? In many ways, the band has been stymied by its mainstream popularity. In short, the undercurrent here is that they are hated, at least in part, because they are so loved.

Photo by Cristiano Pedroso-Roussado on Unsplash

What Psychology Says . . .

Jealousy, like most human behaviors, is complex and multi-faceted. Actually, we often misspeak when we label something as jealousy. The word has a more specific meaning than we typically use in casual conversation and there are subtle, but important, differences between jealousy, envy and covetousness. But (as usual) even experts don’t completely agree on the nuances, with some insisting on absolute specificity and distinction among them and others acknowledging the overlap.

Here are just three examples of how writerly sources have handled the distinction over time:

One might almost say that these two words are used as if they were interchangeable … The words are scarcely synonymous, however. Envymeans discontented longing for someone else’s advantages. Jealousymeans unpleasant suspicion, or apprehension of rivalship. —Theodore M. Bernstein, The Careful Writer, 1965
There are three different ways in which jealous can be used. The most common is … where the meaning is “fearful of losing attention.” Another broad sense is “possessive” or “protective” … third usage is in the sense of “envious,” as of another person because of his or her belongings, abilities, or achievements. —William and Mary Morris, Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (2nd ed.), 1985
Jealousy is properly restricted to contexts involving emotional rivalry; envy is used more broadly of resentful contemplation of a more fortunate person. —Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), 2009

So, the distinction is as clear as the proverbial mud.

In any event, jealousy or envy, or some quagmire of the two, is a powerful and yet cunningly subtle motivator. It’s so intense, after all, that it has its place in two (arguable three, depending on the specific version) of the ten commandments. From these ancient beginnings, the many shades of envy are found everywhere in literature from Aesop’s fable of The Fox and the Grapes, to Grimm’s Cinderellaand Snow White, to all things Hemingway.

It’s so insidious that often we may not even be aware that it is the prime driver of our behavior. Have you ever been judgmental of another’s work, rationalizing it with intellect under the guise of “constructive criticism,” only to find, after deep reflection, that you really just wanted that thing (be it talent, recognition, possessions, etc.) for yourself? Really, think about it. It’s there, lurking in the shadows of at least some of our most critical moments. To envy, it seems, is human.

It’s so pervasive that it covers virtually all dimensions of human behavior. A leading text in the field, Envy: Theory and Research by Richard Smith, includes a section entitled, Perspectives from Organizational Psychology, Economics, Consumer Psychology, Anthropology and Neuroscience, as well as a separate section all of its own for Social Psychological Perspectives. That’s a broad span of human behavior.

Envy, it seems is everywhere. There is object envy (wanting something we do not have) identify envy (wanting to be something we are not) status envy, achievement envy, etc.

Psychologists often categorize envy as benign or malicious. Benign envy refers to that keep-up-with-the-Jones’ mentality that drives consumerism. Our neighbor gets a new shiny toy and suddenly we have to have one too. It is the thing that advertising is made of and the foundation of capitalism. It touches our lives, literally, from cradle to grave.

Malicious envy is a horse of a different color, so to speak. While the benign type can leave us frustrated, dissatisfied and yearning, the malicious type is much more hostile. Malicious envy tends to focus more on the individual who possesses that thing that you perceive you are lacking. There is anger, ill will and sometimes violence.

As usual, psychologists and other “experts” don’t always agree on the purpose or value of these emotions of jealousy and envy. Freud believed that we get along in groups only by repressing our natural jealous urges. Later, psychoanalyst Alfred Adler coined the term “inferiority complex” to assert the central role of jealousy and competition in shaping human behavior.

Today, many clinical and mainstream psychologists consider it primarily maladaptive, in that it causes distress and sometimes dysfunctional behavior. Acting on all of our jealous fantasies can certainly land us in the proverbial heap of trouble and in conflict with the laws of society. But, conversely, evolutionary psychologists, such as Sarah Hill and David Buss, argue that it is “an emotion critical in producing a desire for resources necessary for survival and reproduction over the course of our evolutionary history.” While this reasoning makes sense in a primitive quest for food and other survival resources, it kind of falls apart with respect to coveting the latest model Mercedes or designer runway fashion.

Whether adaptive or maladaptive, perhaps Shakespeare captured the subjective experience of jealousy best when he described it in Othello, as “the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”

Photo by Patrick Collins on Unsplash

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.


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