The envy trap: why we compare ourselves to others and how to stop it

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In 2011, Mina Cikara, a social psychologist at Harvard University, recruited 18 hardcore baseball fans who supported either the Red Sox or Yankees—arguably the fiercest rivalry in American sports. 1

Cikara was interested in learning which regions of the brain are activated when we succeed or fail in comparison to our competitors.

When participants arrived at the lab, they were told to lay down under an MRI scanner and watch clips of actual baseball games involving both teams.


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And after each play, they were asked how good or bad they felt about it.

After scanning the participants’ brains, Cikara and the researchers put together their findings.

The scans showed that not only did the participants feel the most pleasure when their team performed well against their rival, but they also felt considerable pleasure when they saw their rival fail, even against a third-party team.

Particularly, the MRI scans showed that the baseball fans who experienced the most pleasure at watching their rival fail, had the most activation in a small part of the brain called the ventral striatum.

Two weeks after the scan, participants completed a web survey to rate how likely they would be to engage in a variety of aggressive behaviors against a rival i.e. hit them, heckle and throw food and beverages.

The researchers were stunned by the results.

The participants who experienced the most pleasure—and ventral striatal activity in their brain—whilst watching their team succeed or rival fail, were the same people who were most likely to threaten, hit and harm a rival fan.

Cikaras’ study on competition sheds light on the hidden dangers of comparison and raises a bigger question.

Why do we compare ourselves to others and how can we stop this once and for all?

The Evolutionary Psychology Behind Jealousy

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;

It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock

The meat it feeds on.”

― William Shakespeare, Othello

The German word Schadenfreude was first mentioned in English texts in 1852. It means “harm-joy” or pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.

In the book, The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature, social psychologist, Richard Smith, suggests that “Schadenfreude is a natural human emotion” and that “the way we compare ourselves to others plays an important role in our self-esteem…competition itself is a kind of comparison process.” 2

To further reinforce his point, Smith cites Evolutionary psychologists, Sarah Hill and David Buss, who both explain that envy alerts us to improve conditions in which we rank lower than other humans in areas that are crucial for survival and reproductive success. 3

These ideas had been previously explored in the famous social comparison theory (1954): a theory proposed by renowned psychologist, Leon Festinger, which suggests that humans look to others as a standard to measure their own abilities and self-image. 4

Specifically, the social comparison theory suggests that we tend to compare ourselves to (and be envious of) people within our social circle or status, rather than those outside of it.

This explains why when someone within a similar social group outperforms us, we feel jealous: their success triggers our insecurities by making us feel inferior and inadequate.

But when they perform worse than us in any way, it makes us feel better. It boosts our self-esteem.

We see this evolutionary human need for comparison and competition play out in almost all facets of modern society:

Students who achieve the highest grades and attend the most prestigious universities are perceived to be superior to those with lower grades.

Professionals who earn the most salary and work for the largest corporations are perceived to be superior to those who earn less money and work for lesser known companies.

Entrepreneurs who raise the most capital, scale their businesses fastest and generate the most profits, are perceived to be superior to those who own smaller businesses with fewer profits.

But it doesn’t stop there.

We compare our level of attractiveness, body shape, children, spouses, cars and even dogs.

Making matters worse, social media promotes high visibility of the success of our peers, leading to excessive social comparison.

It’s no surprise that recent studies have shown that people who use Facebook are more likely to experience mental health problems, loneliness and unhappiness. 5

But there’s hope.

How to Overcome the Envy Trap

In 1987, a group of researchers conducted a study of 663 lymphoma and breast cancer patients, to uncover the well-being effects of cancer patients interacting with one another. 6

Previous studies on social comparison would’ve predicted that cancer patients who are worse of would feel inferior and jealous of those who were better off. But this isn’t what the researchers found.

The researchers discovered that regular contact with other cancer patients reduced uncertainty and improved their mood.

Particularly, they found significant increases in self-esteem among the cancer patients who were the worst off (those undergoing a second round of treatments).

What are the implications of these findings?

Instead of feeling envious towards people who are better off than us, we can use their success to provide hope and motivate us to achieve our goals.

We can learn from their mistakes and improve on what already works.

Or as the late philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, explained through his writings on Mitfreude:

“The serpent that stings us means to hurt us and rejoices as it does so; the lowest animal can imagine the pain of others. But to imagine the joy of others and to rejoice at it is the highest privilege of the highest animals.” 7

Embrace Comparison

“To feel envy is human, to savour schadenfreude is devilish.”

― Arthur Schopenhauer, On Human Nature

We tend to compare ourselves to others because it helps us measure our abilities for survival within a social hierarchy.

Just like feelings of hunger, sadness and fear, envy is a normal human emotion that alerts us on our current condition.

But when we excessively compare ourselves to others, we feel inferior and inadequate.

We struggle to accept ourselves the way we are, because if we do so, we fear that we’ll never change for the better.

And once turned malicious, envy leads to feelings of resentment—and pleasure when our rivals fail.

The only escape from the envy trap is to embrace comparison in a healthy manner, rather than avoid it at all costs.

When we choose to look up to our peers who are better off than us, let go of perfectionism and use their success as inspiration to improve, we’ll be much more likely to achieve our goals too.

This article first appeared on MayoOshin.com

Mayo Oshin writes at MayoOshin.Com, where he shares the best practical ideas based on proven science and the habits of highly successful people for stress-free productivity and improved mental performance. To get these strategies to stop procrastinating, get more things by doing less and improve your focus, join his free weekly newsletter.


FOOTNOTES

1. Cikara, Mina; Botvinick, Matthew M.; Fiske, Susan T. (2011-03-01). “Us Versus Them Social Identity Shapes Neural Responses to Intergroup Competition and Harm“. Psychological Science. 22 (3): 306–313. doi:10.1177/0956797610397667. ISSN 0956-7976. PMC 3833634. PMID21270447.

2. Smith, Richard H. 2013. The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature. Oxford University Press.

3.Hill, Sarah & Buss, David. (2010). The Evolutionary Psychology of Envy. Envy: Theory and Research.

4. Festinger L (1954). “A theory of social comparison processes“. Human Relations. 7 (2): 117–140. 

5..Arad, Ayala and Barzilay, Ohad and Perchick, Maayan, The Impact of Facebook on Social Comparison and Happiness: Evidence from a Natural Experiment.

6. Van den Borne, H. W., Pruyn, J. F., & Van den Heuvel, W. J. (1987). Effects of contacts between cancer patients on their psychosocial problems. Patient Education and Counseling, 9(1), 33-51.http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0738-3991(87)90107-8

7. Friedrich Nietzsche. Human, All-Too-Human: A Book for Free Spirits.