* Walking down a dark alley, you spot an approaching figure. What is the first thing you want to know? If you are a sentry, you cry out, “Halt! Who goes there? Friend or foe?” You need to know the stranger’s intentions, for good or ill. If the person seems to be on your side—a friend—you assume that the person is trustworthy, friendly, and sincere. If the stranger seems like a foe, however, then you probably do not assume that the person has those warm traits, and indeed you may wonder whether the person has some bad ones besides. We decide who is on our side by knowing who intends to cooperate or compete with us—that is, who has goals compatible with ours and who has zero-sum goals.
After inferring the stranger’s intentions, you will want to know whether he or she can enact those intentions. After all, why does an angry bunny matter (except in the Monty Python killer-rabbit episode)? If the stranger can act effectively, his or her intentions will matter to you. Curiously—and this is the key point—we decide who matters, that is, who deserving poor. The tensions generated by these distinctions have always occupied center stage during election years, but increasingly they pervade our society as it becomes ever more class-divided. The gaps between the top and bottom parts of the income distribution are wider than ever. We have become segregated by social class almost as much as by race, and because social class prejudices are less taboo than those based on race, religion, and gender, we often express social class biases without a second thought. What is more, the latest research reveals that status prejudices of all kinds—not just social class but any status dimension that pits people against each other, one up and one down—are prevalent and persistent in our society. All these observations underlie this meditation on comparison and how it divides us.
After inferring the stranger’s intentions, you will want to know whether he or she can enact those intentions. After all, why does an angry bunny matter (except in the Monty Python killer-rabbit episode)? If the stranger can act effectively, his or her intentions will matter to you. Curiously—and this is the key point—we decide who matters, that is, who can act effectively, by knowing their status. Worldwide, people believe that high status confers competence (hard to believe sometimes when we consider some of the buffoons in charge.2) But in theory and usually in practice, we believe in meritocracy and think that other people generally deserve what they get. All over the world, high-status people, those who hold down prestigious jobs and have achieved economic success, are assumed to be more competent than low-status people.
* People Get the Class They Deserve
It is our national orthodoxy that America is the land of opportunity. According to a pivotal survey by James Kluegel and Eliot Smith, Americans’ stable consensus endorses an opportunity syllogism:
(a) Assuming equal opportunity, then
(b) people get what they deserve, and
(c) the system is fair.
* “The rewards…in this life are esteem and admiration of others—the punishments are neglect and contempt…. The desire of the esteem of others is as real a want of nature as hunger—and the neglect and contempt of the world as severe a pain as the gout or stone.”
—John Adams, Discourses on Davila (1805), 341
People are obsessed by admiration and neglect, envy and scorn, the world over.
* While few of us are driven to burgle our neighbors, let alone the waitress, each of us is caught between those whose position we envy and those whose situation we scorn. We are comparison machines.
* Envy: I Wish That I Had What You Have (And That You Did Not)
Psychologists agree, notes Richard Smith, that envy combines hurt and anger.64 A long-standing expert on the subject, Smith explains that a person who feels envy is experiencing an illegitimate threat to a deserving self.65 The experience of illegitimacy provokes anger, and the threat to self creates hurt. Envy homes in on disadvantage. As Gerrod Parrott notes, envy involves seeing that another person has something you want and wishing that person did not have it because their having it makes you feel inferior.66 Envy can be malicious when it focuses on taking something away from another person, not just obtaining it for yourself. Wanting to damage the privileged other person is the essence of envy because the envied person causes your disadvantage. Consider that paragon of envy, Shakespeare’s Iago. Bypassed for the coveted post of Othello’s lieutenant, Iago develops a deadly envy that catalyzes his revenge on Othello, his wife Desdemona, and his aide Cassio.67 In wreaking havoc, Iago does not even wish to have Desdemona for himself but instead wishes to deprive Othello of her. Envy thus has both a passive side (longing) and a potentially active side (aggression).
* envy is pervasive precisely because all social systems entail inequality. Envy endures because social systems endure. As Molière observed, the envious will die, but never envy.70 Envy survives even in our own allegedly classless American society. All kinds of social systems, not just our equality-oriented one, must condemn envy to keep the peace.
* Envy is not jealousy. A jealous person fears losing a cherished personal relationship to a rival. Jealousy is more intense and more acute than envy because personal attachments change faster than the social system does. To be jealous is often to feel afraid, worried, threatened, rejected, suspicious, or betrayed, whereas the envious person more often feels inferior, ashamed, frustrated, bitter, or deprived…
* The flip side of envy is scorn. Otherwise known as disdain, contempt, or disrespect, scorn is rarely studied, probably for two reasons. When we envy someone else, we are usually aware of it and ruminate about it; our envy bothers us. We are often unaware, however, of scorning others; precisely because scorn is thoughtless, it often does not bother us. Psychologists most often study what bothers them, and being people, they are more bothered by envy than by scorn.
Another reason psychologists do not study scorn is that it is often a matter of neglecting and ignoring someone. “Silence is the most perfect expression of scorn,” claimed George Bernard Shaw, who would know.74 Scorn is the absence of respect, a lack of attention, a failure to consider. A failure to acknowledge another person provides evidence of scorn. In a famous story entitled “Silver Blaze,” Sherlock Holmes solves a case that hinges on “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time”: when a watchdog fails to bark at an intruder, Holmes deduces that the criminal must be the dog’s owner. In a variant on this absence-as-evidence, not only would a scornful dog not bark in alarm, but a scornful dog also would not even wag its tail in recognition.75 Scorn is known by what it fails to do.
* Comparison Corrupts
Keeping up is exhausting, and keeping others down has its own costs. Keeping up entails either emulating the trendsetters (benign envy) or, our issue here, slowing them down (malignant envy). To keep others down, you must suppress them so that they know their (inferior) place. Neither process is good for your health, not to mention the health of your target.
* Powerful individuals frequently fail to be compassionate in dealing with others.81 For example, power increases exploitation, teasing, stereotyping, and even sexual harassment. Power-holders treat others instrumentally.
* Power and status are always accompanied, however, by the risk of developing a scornful insensitivity to subordinates as power-holders control them, derogate them, fail to individuate them, and undermine their agency, all the while being self-serving and instrumental.87 Recent studies show that people induced to feel powerful develop deficits specific to understanding others’ emotions and thoughts. They fail to identify others’ emotional expressions, to consider others’ perspectives, and to appreciate others’ knowledge. Such disregard for people raises the disturbing possibility that power inhibits our ability to see others as fully human entities possessing minds; that is, power may allow scorn.
Consistent with this suggestion, people often view social out-groups as less than human, a scorn-filled judgment if ever there was one. The emotional logic runs like this: we are more human than they are because we have a more complex inner life. As Jacques-Philippe Leyens and his collaborators have shown, we more readily see the in-group as experiencing subtle, complex, uniquely human emotions such as love, hope, grief, and resentment.88 Out-group members—people unlike us—seem to experience only the same simple, primitive emotions that animals do (such as happiness, fear, anger, or sadness). Viewing “them” as feeling momentarily sad but not deeply grieving over the loss of family members, for example, makes it easier to avoid worrying about their misfortunes. This infrahumanization dynamic dampened empathy in the Hurricane Katrina debacle. Generally, white and black observers reported the other-race victims as experiencing less of the uniquely human emotions (anguish, mourning, remorse). To the extent that observers did perceive those emotions, however, they were more likely to offer help.89
Certain forms of social power reduce our ability to understand others’ inner experiences (thoughts and feelings), thereby reducing our capacity for empathy and resulting in scorn directed downward.
* You are most likely to seek a proxy when you need to predict your own performance, such as deciding whether to join a hike. A quick ability assessment predicts your fate.11 If the proxy is similar enough, you can project yourself into his or her boots and decide accordingly.12
Gossip creates a kind of virtual proxy: a group of people collectively try on someone else’s shoes. Gossip is, in effect, collaborative social comparison. People often assess themselves by talking about others. In some estimates, most adult conversations concern someone who is absent from it.13 People gossip with similar others about someone they agree is dissimilar. For example, an urban writers’ colony filled with distinguished social scientists often spent their communal lunches discussing—not great ideas—celebrity sex scandals. Such gossip is evaluative talk about an absent but relevant other. The celebrities were relevant because everyone knew about them and because their failings were all too human. Groups use gossip to bond and to communicate norms—that is, prescribed and proscribed behavior.14 And gossip is useful. Because gossip tells stories about people, we enjoy and absorb it better than we do abstract admonitions. Stories about people allow us to learn the easy way, by someone else’s example. Gossip not only informs us but connects us. We feel close by agreeing about a third party.15 The third party becomes a shared proxy for vicarious learning.
“The couples we knew were also aging…and paid rising taxes and suffered automobile accidents and midnight illnesses and marital woe; but under the tireless supervision of gossip all misfortunes were compared, and confessed, and revealed as relative.”
* In daily life, we all too easily blame the powerful. To explain their financial challenges, low-wage workers blame powerful institutions, such as government (blamed “some or “a lot” by 74 percent) and corporate America (64 percent), at least as often as they blame themselves (63 percent) and far more often than they blame fate (29 percent) or discrimination (30 percent).109 Many of us blame the political system for the gap between low- and high-income Americans (63 percent).110 Feelings about inequality poison trust, and loss of trust, in turn, undermines participation in the local community.111 Blaming the powerful arguably undermines our feelings of control, a loss that is well known to jeopardize health. Envy endangers the envious.112
Envy expert Richard Smith and his colleagues convincingly detail a “witch’s brew” of ways in which envy may make us sick.113 First, frustration is a component of envy, which is all about unresolved wanting, with an overlay of felt injustice. Giving in to the tendency to dwell on such grievances can undermine our well-being. Second, envy is self-destructive in that resentment, shame, and hostility can motivate us to hurt others, even at the risk of harming ourselves. For example, some people are willing to forgo personal profits if they can bring down the target of their envy. Third, envy damages close relationships that might otherwise provide an antidote to misery. Envy makes us feel inferior and probably prickly about receiving help or expressing gratitude.
Added to all these psychological risks is the totally scary low-status syndrome. Low status demands a vigilant attention to those with higher status, and this vigilance compromises health. Here’s why. Single-shot, acute reactions to temporary threats benefit from the body’s short-term stress responses, which ordinarily calm down after the danger has passed. If the body’s stress system stays on prolonged alert, however, as it does for people who are constantly vigilant, mental and physical health are damaged.114
As it keeps the nervous system on alert, with downstream risk to the cardiovascular and immune systems, vigilance becomes costly. Low-status people incur the costs of vigilance for good reason. People are chronically watchful when their lives feel out of control. Indeed, this is the cost of being lower in the hierarchy and looking up all the time at those who control one’s fate. Consistent with this analysis, men’s social class predicts their heart disease risk; in pathbreaking work, Michael Marmot and his colleagues, surveying the Whitehall sample of British civil servants, show that the risk rises with the experience of not having enough control at work.115 Besides lack of control as a risk factor, negative emotions are implicated in this finding, because resentment, hostility, anxiety, hopelessness, and cynicism (emotions related to envy) underlie the harms wrought by loss of control.
* Much as Americans may resent their elites, Americans themselves are the elite of the world.
* “The rewards…in this life are esteem and admiration of others—the punishments are neglect and contempt…. The desire of the esteem of others is as real a want of nature as hunger—and the neglect and contempt of the world as severe a pain as the gout or stone.”
—John Adams, Discourses on Davila (1805), 341
People are obsessed by admiration and neglect, envy and scorn, the world over. We are divided from each other by the often correlated differences between power (resources) and status (prestige).60 Elites within the United States and Americans in the world evoke envy and run the risk of scorning those who are less well off.
More generally, people in positions of power are vulnerable to neglecting those with less power. People without power, in contrast, focus closely on the powerful but may resent them. Just how do human beings understand the thoughts and feelings of other people who have more or less power? Does empathy allow us to understand and appreciate others despite the separations caused by individual, group, and national power differences? And when do power differences damage empathy and cause us to dehumanize each other? When do we scorn those below us and envy those above us? And what happens between us when we do?
In “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” John Cheever describes Johnny Hake, a Westchester resident with a cash-flow problem. Just laid off and totally broke, he “had never yearned for anyone the way [he] yearned that night for money.” He envies and resents his wealthy neighbor (“rich…the kind of man that you would not have liked at school. He has bad skin and a rasping voice and a fixed idea—lechery. The Warburtons are always spending money, and that’s what you talk about with them”). After lifting Warburton’s loaded wallet, Hake scorns a coffee-shop customer who pockets the previous customer’s thirty-five-cent tip (“What a crook!”).61 While few of us are driven to burgle our neighbors, let alone the waitress, each of us is caught between those whose position we envy and those whose situation we scorn. We are comparison machines.
Even dogs know when another dog is getting something they themselves deserve.
* What about envy, which is directed upward? While being envious of high-status, allegedly exploitative people might not seem important, in fact our feelings toward higher-status groups and individuals can catalyze a volatile mix of reactions toward those we grudgingly respect but dislike.
In Haslam’s system, a unique kind of dehumanization targets envied groups: they are denied the typically human attributes, such as warmth and sociality. These cold but effective out-groups are likened to robots. Perceived as threatening because they seem like automatons, out-groups dehumanized in this way are not so much disgusting as chilling. Think cyborgs. Businesspeople and their paraphernalia, from briefcases to suits, are associated in our minds with automatons, from androids to software.104 On the downside, we link both businesspeople and robots to being cold, conservative, heartless, and shallow, though we acknowledge that they are also organized, polite, and thorough. What both CEOs and computers are not is typically human: curious, friendly, sociable, and fun-loving.
In our own work we have found that members of ethnic groups who succeed as entrepreneurs (Jews, Asians) and subordinate out-group members who succeed as professionals (middle-class blacks, career women) fall into this ambivalent space, eliciting envy and resentment. Society views them as sacrificing their humanity to get ahead, a finding that parallels the chilling cyborgs of Haslam’s system. In surveys, people report that members of these groups—often seen as rich—are cold but competent.105 These particular out-groups also provoke more envy than other groups do. People in the lower right part of the BIAS Map are allegedly not on our side, but their competence makes them threatening (see figure 1.7).
The volatility of our mixed reactions to envied groups is dangerous. Envied groups are especially targeted when we make the common assumption that they are conspiring. All too often we assume that the powerful are in cahoots to carry out their dangerous intents, that they are all of one evil mind. Recall that canard, “the Jews control the banking industry.” In one study, Eric Dépret and I simulated a situation in which those in power hold all the cards and they all hang together, so that one feels helpless to influence them. In this scenario, undergraduates came into a study where they could earn money for their performance under the distraction typically inflicted by roommates. The distracters had either more or less power (they could interfere a little or a lot), and they came either from one college major (they were in cahoots) or from several majors (they were unlikely to conspire). Faced with a uniform bunch of high-powered math majors, psychology majors felt more unhappy and threatened than they did when dealing with a motley high-powered group comprising a math major, an art major, and a business major.106 They perceived high-status outsiders as having minds, but cold, calculating, threatening, conspiring minds. In the worst case, such a perception would justify the elimination of a high-status group as a threat to “us.”
* When envy entails anger and resentment, it harms the envied other. At a societal level, people who report both envy and anger toward privileged groups also report a greater tendency toward harming them.107 At the individual level, envied out-groups are subject to schadenfreude (malicious glee at their misfortunes) and aggression.
* THE SIGNS of envy and scorn are everywhere because the vertical dimension is everywhere. The vertical dimension, “ambition’s ladder,” is a necessary part of any human system. Group-living animals all have hierarchies. Even chickens have pecking orders. Coordination demands it. Stability demands it. Adjustment demands it. Despite the corrosive side effects of envy and scorn, our social systems require status differences. So we know them when we see them.
Yet envy and scorn embarrass us. We hesitate to admit feeling them ourselves, whether privately or publicly. When I tell people at parties about this book project, they are intrigued, but they rarely volunteer a personal story about envying or scorning someone. Nobody wants to own these reactions. It is as if we define and conjugate the verb “to compare” thus: “I evaluate, we measure, you judge, and they obsess.” What seems useful in the privacy of our own minds often seems pathetic or despicable in other people. So how do we detect these comparisons that none of us admit to making?
* status-competence is one of two immediate priorities in first impressions (the other being cooperation-warmth). One of the first things we seek to know about other people is whether they can act on their intentions. Our research shows that competence-status is one of two fundamental dimensions of social cognition, and our research is not alone in this conclusion.1 Data from Europe indicate that the status-competence dimension accounts for nearly one-third of the action in our first impressions of people.2 So all of us are alert to the relative status and presumed (in)competence of other people from our first encounter with them.
Whenever groups gather, some people soon rank higher than others.3 This happens because groups spontaneously award status.4 The natural leaders seem best at representing the group’s shared values, so they appear to be the most competent and expert, resolving uncertainty. Thus, they influence others and control incentives; they provide reassuring structure and predictability. This happens even in social groups, but more openly in work groups.
We seek to meet a variety of needs, besides earning a living, when we go to work. These needs include wanting to belong to a group and wanting some predictability and control over our lives within the group. These prediction-control needs arguably are best met in a hierarchical organization. According to Deborah Gruenfeld and Larissa Tiedens, status is crucial in all organizations, despite the easygoing management fashions of the twenty-first century.5 As groups of groups, organizations cannot coordinate their activities or motivate their members without granting some groups and individuals more power and value than others. Every known organization has a vertical dimension, according to scholars who have searched for an organization without one. When organizations form, status spontaneously emerges. We tend to prefer organizations that have a consensus about who ranks above whom. What is more, once established, status systems perpetuate themselves, justify themselves, and legitimate themselves.6 Hierarchy seems inevitable and even useful.
If we so relentlessly demand hierarchy, our brains must be wired for it.
* Individuals Mind Their Goals Through Envy and Scorn
Consider first our individual selves. Emotions inform our priorities by alerting us when a personal goal needs attention, and they help us maintain those priorities—by tracking not only our goals but our efforts to meet them. For example:
• Feeling guilty reminds us to make amends.
• Feeling jealous suggests that a relationship needs work.
• Feeling angry alerts us that we have been wronged.
• Feeling afraid focuses the mind on coping with a threat.
• Feeling happy signals that salient goals have been met.
Envy and scorn are no different from other emotions. Both envy and scorn identify a gap between what we have and what someone else has. “Envy is ever joined with the comparing of a man’s self; and where there is no comparison, no envy,” Francis Bacon observed.37 Scorn likewise compares self to other, with self coming out on top. Feeling envious signals inferiority; feeling scorn signals superiority. In envy, we might wish to attend to the gap, either bringing the other down (malicious envy) or bringing the self up (benign envy). As an example of malicious envy, we show schadenfreude while watching the hedge fund manager’s encounter with dog feces—or billionaires stubbing a toe or sitting on chewing gum (figure 2.6)—by the subtle activation of the smile muscles in our cheeks (figure 2.7).38 Schadenfreude especially results from envy when the other is similar enough to us to offer a personally relevant social comparison.39 Feeling resentful, angry, or wronged all predict schadenfreude.40 We really mind the gap.
* stigma by association arises even when a normal-weight person is merely next to an obese person.41 No surprise, then, that we tend to avoid other people with a bad reputation or simply an unattractive appearance—to avoid being tarred by the same brush.
* Envy and scorn interrupt other ongoing activities to alert us to the risks we run by not living up to a salient standard (envy) or by surpassing someone else and needing to maintain that distance (scorn). Envy and scorn as emotions signal the importance of social-comparison goals. Emotions get more complicated when we move outside the mind to face the other person, but we are rigged to manage that as well.
Partners Coordinate Through Envy and Scorn
We are interpersonal comparison experts. When we encounter another person, we rapidly judge the other person’s dominance or status.43 This creates a face-to-face comparison; envy and scorn may follow. How could automatic comparison possibly be useful to the encounter? Would it be better not to rank ourselves all the time? Maybe. But social-comparison emotions do inform partners about each other’s intentions, allow complementary behavior, and allow each partner to control the other’s behavior.44 The envious partner pays attention, and the scornful partner need not. Both envy and scorn allow the partners to make efficient assumptions that grease the social wheels. However, the coordination benefits differ on either side of the divide. What is good for the greater is not good for the lesser.
For the high-status person, both the comparison itself and its public nature generate pride.45 Pride is a self-focused emotion that tends to ignore other people. (Inattention, remember, is an element of scorn.) As the research of Dacher Keltner and his colleagues on interpersonal power shows, most powerful people are confidently cheerful because one’s own power feels good. For example, people express positive feelings in discussions with their romantic partner if that person recognizes them as powerful, or even when they are randomly assigned to be powerful.46 When people have the advantage, they feel capable of overcoming challenges and are confident they have the inner resources to meet the demands of threat, uncertainty, or effort.47 Henry Kissinger famously quipped that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, but because many people seek power and dominance simply because it feels good, perhaps power has benefits even beyond the bedroom.
Dominance not only allows us to have positive feelings about ourselves but also creates negative feelings in us against others. When high-status people feel on top of the world, they are more likely to express anger and disgust (cousins of scorn and contempt).48 A furrowed brow indicates anger, and anger in turn signals dominance without any softening affiliation.49 In one demonstration of this, undergraduates viewed three dozen photographs of faces expressing a variety of emotions (anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, neutrality) and rated each one on thirty-two personality traits. The traits fit into two basic dimensions and certain emotions convey certain personalities. Expressing anger and disgust (scorn!) toward someone else, for instance, suggests a dominant personality devoid of affiliative orientation (table 2.1).
Expressing anger not only implies ruthless dominance but also gains the advantage in negotiation against a weaker partner.50 Contempt subordinates, rejects, and excludes other people.51 Scorn signals the freedom to look down on others, so in that perverse way it serves the power-holder.
What could possibly be useful about the other side, the envious feelings that come with disadvantage? Presumably, none of us like to come out on the bottom of a comparison in an everyday encounter. And videos of our facial expressions reveal that we especially mind someone else doing better if the arena is relevant to us and the other person is close to us.52
The litany of discomfort is familiar to us all. If we are low status, public comparison makes us ashamed, a feature of envy.53 Similarly, we feel bad if our romantic partner has power over us,54 and our self-esteem suffers as a result.55 When we are at a disadvantage, we often feel threatened, which can make us judge that we have insufficient resources to meet the threat.56 In light of all this, how can feeling hopelessly one-down in social-comparison encounters possibly be useful?
Apparently, even shame, envy, inferiority, and threat are better than uncertainty, chaos, and conflict. Interactions are predictable when one partner agrees to be subordinate and the other is dominant. Sometimes surrender is better than a fight, and one way we communicate our subordinate status is by the emotions we express. When we express fear and sadness we come across as subordinate, not just in the moment,57 but as a character trait.58 The subordinate emotions trigger several ways of giving up: doing nothing if we are sad, running away if we are fearful, or feeling small if we are ashamed.59 All of these subordinate responses show how emotions can communicate lower status in a moment.
Emotions determine fates beyond the moment. Some facial expressions seem permanent, such as the face of someone who always looks innocent just because of having a face with the wide eyes and arched eyebrows of surprise (see figure 2.8). We are so sensitive to emotional cues of rank that we infer subordinate status even in people who are simply endowed with a sweet baby-face, regardless of age. We interpret facial immaturity, femininity, and weakness to mean subordinate status.60 Thus, we pick up even unintended emotional cues.
* Just as individuals track their goals through their emotions and partners track each other by reading each other’s emotions, so do groups manage their collective goals, and their members, by using group emotions.62 Gandhi notes that powerful groups scorn a rebellious minority by ignoring them and laughing at them before fully engaging them. In a more everyday example, we gossip not just to differentiate ourselves from the victims of our gossip but to connect with our co-conspirators. In social talk, group members bond when they share feelings about third parties.63
Through group-oriented feelings, the group extends the self. 64 As Eliot Smith, Diane Mackie, and their colleagues note, people incorporate the group into themselves, so they react emotionally on behalf of their group. Maybe the group itself does not literally experience emotions, but people report emotions they feel as a group member. (“As an American, I feel proud.” “As a Republican, I feel angry.”) These group-oriented emotions, distinct from a person’s feelings as an individual, depend on identification with the group and its shared values. If our cherished group is low status, we feel low status as a group member, and we experience the attendant emotions on behalf of our group. So, too, with high status. Our tribe’s place in society determines collective emotions, including envy and scorn.
* Why do people even care about a rival’s matchup with a third party? The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued that the pain of own-group inferiority directs the mind to the substitute pleasure of out-group failure.66 Maintaining loyalty to our own group, in the face of demoralizing low status, works better if the members of our group can share anger about our rival’s allegedly illegitimate victory.67 Shared resentments cement group membership. We understand each other because we all hate “them.”
What is more, we are virtuous in direct proportion to the evil of our rival. Indeed, people who are highly identified with their group readily detect injuries to their group, reacting protectively and viewing group insults as self-relevant.68 This fits the Smith-Mackie idea of incorporating the group into the self. Loyalists who feel that their group is downtrodden put down the out-group in turn and discriminate against it.69 This can benefit the injured in-group, elevating collective self-esteem (members’ feelings about the value of their group) as well as the individual self-esteem of its members.70 For example, Jolanda Jetten and her colleagues studied people with multiple body piercings, a group whose members often feel stigmatized by mainstream society. The more a pierced person feels discrimination, the more strongly that person identifies with the in-group and the higher his or her feelings of collective self-esteem.
Besides organizing between-group relations, emotions also stabilize status within the group. Just as partners coordinate their relative status by expressing appropriate emotions, so people coordinate status within groups. Leaders are allowed to joke and laugh and to show anger and contempt, whereas followers may not show these emotions; however, followers may show shame, fear, and embarrassment.71 When employees mock their employer in public, the enterprise is doomed. Well-functioning groups apparently favor the emotional certainty of shared goals, clear boundaries, and stable hierarchy, despite the negative emotions that may be experienced by those lower on the totem pole. Individuals join groups in the first place partly to feel more certain and secure.72
Cultures Regulate Themselves Through Envy and Scorn
There is yet some good in public envy, whereas in private, there is none. For public envy, is as an ostracism, that eclipseth men, when they grow too great. And therefore it is a bridle also to great ones, to keep them within bounds.
—Francis Bacon, “Of Envy” (1597)
Francis Bacon observed that the threat of public envy could contain high-status people. Cultures can also regulate people through the threat of scorn. In this sense, both scorn and envy are moral emotions, distinguishing the cultural right from the cultural wrong. Again, people usefully tune in to envy and scorn in the service of cultural regulation.
Psychologists have rarely studied scorn, but they have thoroughly studied its cousin disgust and, to some extent, contempt. Disgust is clearly a moral emotion.73 When people break a taboo, other people judge them by saying, “That’s disgusting,” a real conversation stopper. In some circles, “nasty” implies either mean and cruel or gross and disgusting, so immoral behavior is nauseating. Disgust rejects, excludes, and repels. Our disgust toward some people signals that they have breached a sacred taboo, dirtying themselves, endangering sanctity and purity. When we admit feeling disgust toward homeless people and injection-drug users, we are reacting partly to the image of these people as contaminated, both morally and physically.74 Disgust announces that the culture excludes such people from full humanity. Moreover, our desire to avoid disgusting other people is a powerful incentive to avoid disgusting, immoral behavior.
* The groups that people prefer, in order to reduce uncertainty, are cohesive, solid groups with boundaries and homogeneity.
Such groups share defining beliefs and values, including what it means to belong and who is an ideal member. The most prototypic members become leaders partly because they make everything seem so certain. Leaders represent the group prototype; they are its icon. As a result, two cognitive processes are triggered. First, group members believe that the leader possesses the appropriate traits that represent the group. At a minimum, they believe that this individual is competent and able to act for the group’s shared goals and values, whatever those may be. Different settings require different traits in effective leaders (consider the commander in chief versus a group therapist).98 Naming someone a leader typically makes group members believe that the leader symbolically represents the group’s shared characteristics.
The second cognitive process associated with leadership is attention: people attend up.99 Attention follows power, perhaps partly out of admiration and emulation, but also out of need and envy. Attention provides details (accurate or not) about leaders. We view the powerful as fascinating individuals; they are somebodies worthy of our attention. Attention can increase our own sense that we understand what the powerful will do and how we might influence them.100 Attention provides us with that sense of certainty.
* Apart from static comparisons that embody status, we also enact status whenever we meet. Status allows us in our daily encounters to coordinate with each other without fighting it out. Status uncertainty would make these interactions stressful. Instead, we implicitly agree on who is higher and who is lower, and that being settled, we can get on more effectively. Synchronized, reciprocal signals coordinate the status dance.
* While talking, people use speech styles to signal dominance. Dominant speech is confident, direct, rapid, articulate, abundant, blunt, and standard speech.111 In the movie Matilda, Agatha Trunchbull, the domineering headmistress, illustrates many of these features when she dresses down Matilda’s father, himself no shrinking violet:
“WORMWOOD!!! You useless used-car salesman scum! I want you around here now, with another car! Yes, I know what “caveat emptor” means, you low-life liar! I’m going to sue you, I’m going to burn down your showroom, I’m going to take that no-good jalopy you sold me and shove it up your bazooka! When I’m finished with you, you’re going to look like roadkill!”
Dominant people use other tactics besides verbal bludgeons. When given a chance to act, powerful people act more than they deliberate, and they make changes, especially toward personal goals.113 Talking and acting indicate power. The lack of all these cues signals a willingness to be subordinate.
* In conversation, higher-class people disengage more, self-groom, doodle, and fiddle; they also engage less, failing to look, nod, laugh, or raise their eyebrows to indicate interest. These cues both reflect self-reported social class and predict perceived social class background. Of course, clothing reveals social class as well. Although the more obvious cues may be designer suits versus grubby denim, more subtle cues involve what Paul Fussell describes as “legible clothing”—T-shirts with writing or, slightly less low, anything that features the maker’s logo. Another memorable low-class signal is what he terms the “prole jacket gape”: an ill-fitting suit will have a gap at the back of the collar.118 Money buys understated, tailored attire.
* Society also requires that lower-status people cooperate with the higher-status people they may envy. Ongoing transactions demand that subordinates go along to get along, a kind of passive accommodation and association, according to our surveys. Higher-status groups control resources that lower-status groups need, so lower-status groups accommodate themselves to what they cannot change, when times are stable.
Nevertheless, envy produces mixed and volatile behavior. Consider the case of outsider entrepreneurs, such as Asians and Jews in diaspora. Historically, they have tended to set up successful businesses. In quiet times, lower-status groups put up with and even defer to these high-status groups, shopping at their stores, acknowledging though resenting their success. But when the chips are down, when society is destabilized, these groups are the first targets of mass violence, looting, and genocide. Examples of entrepreneurial outsiders turned into victims include the Koreans in the Los Angeles riots of the 1990s, the Chinese in Indonesia, the Indians in East Africa, the Tutsis in Rwanda, and the Jews in Europe. All were integrated into their host societies but were targeted for mass violence under social breakdown. Genocide often targets a formerly privileged out-group.
* status anxiety derives from a variety of common experiences, such as feeling unloved, having unrealistic expectations, endorsing meritocracy, fearing snobs, and being dependent. For almost all of us, our well-being is contingent sometimes on other people’s love, expectations, judgment, respect, and power, and this can make us feel insecure.
* Even though it is not the single most important source of their self-esteem, men’s self-esteem hinges more on social comparisons than women’s does (see the first columns in figure 3.2.).37 Men are more likely than women to value “doing better than anyone else at something that is important,” “thinking about how your skills and abilities compare to other people your age,” and “thinking about how well people your age perform tasks you must also perform.” Perhaps because men are—both stereotypically and in actuality—more openly competitive than women are,38 men define themselves more than women do in terms of independence and agency, that is, being effective in the world.39 The ability to be effective depends on knowing how others are doing, so it makes sense to compare. Men’s tendency to compare and compete stems as much from internal as external ideals about what defines the male role.
As the stereotypical relationship experts, women care more than men do about so-called reflected appraisals—how other people view them (see the third columns in figure 3.2).40 Women are more likely than men to value “having others think of you as a good person”; “getting praise from someone like a teacher, boss, parent, or older sibling”; and “having your friends, co-workers, or teammates recognize you’ve done a good job.” Having your well-being contingent on others’ opinions, as noted, undermines self-esteem. For example, an important dimension for women when they compare themselves to other people is appearance, especially their bodies. For women, this kind of social comparison predicts dissatisfaction with their own body.41 An entertaining if tangential example comes from my experience with a visiting colleague known for his exceptionally tailored and elegant appearance. Feeling suddenly shabby, I retreated to the women’s room, only to discover two female colleagues likewise repairing their appearance. The situation was especially odd because our colleague was gay; we were trying to meet the high standard he set, not trying to attract him.
* Conservatives prefer assurance, and liberals like novelty… Conservatives protect the in-group, whereas liberals promote equality between groups. Conservatives seem to specialize in the in-group, avoiding risk, endorsing hierarchy, preferring tradition, supporting familiar values, and prioritizing family allegiance.
* Social ties predict happiness and well-being better than almost anything else does.107 People are so sensitive to ostracism that they immediately feel crummy even when strangers leave them out of a computer game.108 The neural pathways for social pain parallel those for physical pain.109 And physical pain diminishes when we make social connections, from looking at a partner’s photograph to receiving social support from just about anyone.110 Tylenol cures both physical and social pain.111 As an improvised cure for social pain, people spontaneously engage in “social snacking” by seeking human images and surrogates. Even a volleyball on a desert island in the movie Cast Away becomes a friend named Wilson.112
People are no fools to fasten onto social connections. Social isolation endangers health, threatening the immune system, cardiovascular system, and health habits.113 Negative emotions, including loneliness, may damage immune functioning by inflammatory processes often associated with cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, frailty, and functional decline.114 Social support helps people survive heart attacks.115 Social ties also correlate with longevity, even controlling for physical health, smoking, alcohol use, obesity, activity, class, age, life satisfaction, and health habits.116
* We may protect ourselves from envy either passively or actively as well—passively, by downplaying our good fortune to prevent envy, and actively, by inviting others to join us. In many cultures, people publicly minimize their good fortune, abundance, and fertility. They may conceal or deny having what others covet. When hiding fails, people may undermine envy by sharing their good fortune in an effort to placate other people or even the gods.
* “For me they normally happen, these career crises, often, actually, on a Sunday evening, just as the sun is starting to set, and the gap between my hopes for myself, and the reality of my life, start to diverge so painfully that I normally end up weeping into a pillow…. I’m mentioning all this because I think this is not merely a personal problem. You may think I’m wrong in this. But I think that we live in an age when our lives are regularly punctuated by career crises, by moments when what we thought we knew, about our lives, about our careers, comes into contact with a threatening sort of reality.”
—Alain de Botton, “A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success” (2009)
WE ALL need to know where we stand, especially in those “moments when what we thought we knew, about our lives, about our careers, [our relationships, our appearance, our health] comes into contact with a threatening sort of reality.” Life requires that our self-view at least approximately fit our reality, not to mention our hopes. Psychologists know a lot about this. One major reason we compare ourselves with others is to gain information in order to evaluate and improve ourselves, functions that serve the twin motives of prediction and control. Comparison informs us.
Our need to understand (and perhaps control) our fate runs deep. We are healthier and happier when we think that we know who we are and where we stand. Self-knowledge adapts us to navigate our days, from the minor level (“Do I wake up easily?” “Am I a good tennis player?”) to the major (“Do I get along well with my patchwork family?” “Do I reliably meet my work deadlines?”). Evolutionary psychologists argue that a self-concept serves our survival needs because it helps us not only in planning our own actions but also in coordinating with others.1 How could we know whom to join and whom to avoid without knowing who we are? How could we know what role to play when we do join others? How do we know what we can and cannot do if we do not compare our abilities to others? How well we get up, get by at tennis, get along with others, or get things done—all of these are relative judgments. Whether we should be the local alarm clock, tennis partner, family mediator, or group motivator depends on our abilities relative to those of others who are available.2 Other people serve as a reality check on our abilities (“I may be better than most people at getting up without an alarm clock, but I know where I stand relative to others as a tennis player, and it’s not good.”).
Having information allows us to predict what will happen, and that is a comfort. By and large, we do not like surprises, at least not the ones that come without party hats. Even more, we would like to be able to control what will happen, or at least understand the contingencies between what we do and what we get. We like to know about upcoming parties, raises, lay-offs, proposals, and babies; also, we prefer to have some say in these events. What is more, the illusion of information and control—as long as it is not too far from reality—matters more to us than its accuracy.3 That is, many of us tend to overestimate our own knowledge and influence, which reassures us that the world is not random and that what we do makes a difference. At a minimum, we like to believe that a trusted someone is in control, whether that someone is our president, our tech support, or our god. Indeed, some researchers suggest that our persistent religious beliefs stem from a need for at least vicarious control.4 Our motives for seeking prediction and control are among the most basic to our survival as social creatures.5
* People need information to evaluate and control their fates, to handle the times when, as Alain de Botton put it, “the gap between my hopes for myself, and the reality of my life, start to diverge so painfully” (2004). Sometimes we cannot close the gap with information, so we become skillful at the mental gymnastics of protecting self-esteem (chapter 5) or take refuge in our most comfortable and familiar in-group (chapter 6). Comparison operates in accord with the dictates of both the rational mind and the emotional gut.
* We practice some Olympic-caliber emotional gymnastics to protect and promote our fragile selves. That is, we choose our comparisons—self now to self earlier, self to other—in ways that protect our self-esteem.
* One strategy is self-comparison. We compare the new, improved self with our old, discarded self. As Anne Wilson and Michael Ross put it, we go “from chump to champ,” at least in our own stories.
* we craft our history by locating, constructing, and valuing events to minimize the awkward and accentuate the flattering. The past is our personal historical fiction that gives a pleasing but plausible account of who we are.
For the self at center stage, the future looks lovely. We fully expect ourselves to go from winner now to even more wonderful ever after. Our cheery optimism about ourselves qualifies as a positive illusion.9 Optimism motivates, persists, improves, and encourages, at least in the short run.10 Of course, unrealistic optimism, fantasies, and downright narcissism are not helpful. Pleasant fantasies, for instance, allow unproductive daydreaming, whereas optimistic expectations motivate effort, which makes them a self-fulfilling prophecy, in Robert Merton’s felicitous phrase.11 In life domains as varied as pursuing a crush, acing an exam, seeking a job, or enduring hip replacement surgery, we do indeed do better when we concentrate on the odds of doing well. Fantasies promote inaction, but high expectations motivate action.
The future self motivates us, and we value the future more than the past.12 Self-esteem depends on the future self more than on the past self because the future is elastic, while the past is rigid.
* Besides our hopeful prediction that good events will prevail over bad ones, we expect more sheer drama than we get. That is, we expect our future windfalls to delight us more and our future tragedies to devastate us more than they actually do. We overestimate both the intensity and the duration of our emotional reactions to events. We do this mainly by focusing on the anticipated event and neglecting everything else that will be going on at the same time—that is, the simultaneous events that will tend to dampen the main event. If we break a bone, it will indeed be horrible, but our partner, our job, and our friends will distract us from the mishap. Also, we will cope better psychologically because we will adapt faster than we expect. We especially exaggerate the expected devastation that will be caused by negative events; in fact, most of us are more resilient than we would expect. In short, we adapt faster than we expect especially to misfortune.16 Overall, when we compare our present self to our past self and our future self, we are motivated, more than the facts justify, and in spite of our admission that the past was cloudy, to forecast sunny if variable days ahead.
* Like the award-winning but modest real estate agents, we groom our image, if only to avoid potential resentment. Peer hostility is real. Malicious envy punishes the standouts with gossip, backlash, and revenge. High performers know this and often feel ambivalent about their awards. Psychologists used to call this feeling “fear of success,” one explanation for which is the tension between getting ahead and getting along with others.26
Besides genuine fears for self and other as separate individuals, enviable people worry about their relationships. More than one academic superstar has recounted not wanting to share their success stories at home for fear of straining rapport or escalating conflict. At class reunions, most people do not start conversations by reciting their résumés, and not without reason: a swelled head ensures retaliation by or ostracism from work teams and friendship networks. Our cultural axioms record these tendencies: “Tall poppies get mowed down”…“Nails that stick up get hammered”…“Pride goeth before a fall”…“Putting on airs invites puncture.” Moreover, cultural rituals enact these beliefs—for example, in an American celebrity roast. Under older Japanese business norms, a salaryman could disrespect his boss without consequence when both were drunk. In Hottentot traditional culture, the hunters could urinate on the most successful.27 American summer camps symbolically do the same in a skit that mocks counselors (preferably in late August). Social comparison creates interpersonal tensions that high achievers manage as best they can.
* The opposite of dismissing someone is to merge with that person. Envy can transmute into inspiration. A superstar becomes a role model if two conditions are met. First, we must believe that we have the opportunity to follow the person’s success, and second, we must believe that talent can grow, that it is not fixed.
* People who are feeling low (depressed, low self-esteem, bad mood) can especially benefit from downward comparison.38 Downward comparison reduces regret, for example, among older people.39 Considering “what might have been” also improves mood and motivates us to try again, if we can.40 In these ways, downward comparison can encourage some of us, some of the time.
* people at the top do not derogate others nearly as much as those who are trying to distance themselves from the heap into which they fear falling. Downward comparison is at best a short-term coping process, not a long-term strategy. Better long-term strategies maintain optimism, feelings of control, and adequate self-esteem. These strategies, in turn, encourage us to cope actively, seeking support from friends and family and not avoiding the issues.46 These personally oriented strategies rely less on social comparison—which typically preoccupies people with vulnerable self-esteem—and more on personal standards, which aid self-improvement as well as self-enhancement.47
To go back to the section title, scorn’s “no harm, no foul” happens in two ways. True scorn (self-protective downward comparison) says, “If I am feeling threatened, I am doing this to help myself, not harm you, so why do you care?” Neglect scorn (simple inattention) says, “No offense, but I’ve got my own work to do, and I am not actually busy looking down on you, so relax.” Either way, personal scorn may be less of an issue than worse-off friends fear it is.
* Illusions also benefit physical health.58 In particular, optimism predicts immune response, and even unrealistic optimism protects health.59 Relatedly, finding meaning in illness can slow disease progression as people compare their past self with their present and future selves. The acutely ill frequently report that their diagnoses set their priorities straight, making them cherish their closest relationships, appreciate their advantages, and value each day for itself. Several physical health benefits result from such realizations. Emotional well-being improves immune function and reduces other medical complications. Hope and calm raise the odds of maintaining healthy habits, and pleasant, upbeat attitudes attract support from friends and family. (Misery may love company, but company does not love misery.)
* our assumptions about the world are shattered by trauma.66 Most of us believe that the world is generally meaningful and benevolent and that we ourselves are worthy. Random injury and unexpected illness endanger those ground rules. Our psychological work as victims of these events requires that we rebuild our positive assumptions. To survive and thrive, we need to believe that the world is somewhat predictable and controllable, that we ourselves are basically good, and that we are securely attached in our relationships.
* We need our relationships, and we like to think that we are big enough to celebrate the successes of our friends and partners, but human nature interferes with the best ideals. Envy and scorn especially plague us when we are already downhearted. And when we are insecure in ourselves or in our relationships, we make ourselves more miserable by making intimate comparisons. As we have seen repeatedly, people who are unhappy or suffering from low self-esteem are more likely to seek comparison—downward comparison in particular.
* Turning malicious envy (“You shouldn’t have it”) into benign envy (“How can I get it too?”) is a more plausible strategy, although in attempting to inspire the downhearted (“You, too, can succeed”), the envied person could end up delivering a condescending insult. Still, as the last chapter showed, most of us are motivated to compare slightly upward, in the service of self-improvement, and so the envied person can try to persuade the envier to switch from a social comparison (you versus me) to a temporal comparison (your current self versus your future self).
Affirming the other is probably the most effective strategy, if it is sincere. Someone suffering by comparison can learn to accept that feedback after having a positive self-concept affirmed in another domain.94 People who are told that they have tested high on social skills and ambition then readily admit that an extremely attractive peer is in fact more attractive than they are. Because people can also control their own defensive responses by affirming themselves as a good and worthy person, perhaps the envied can mimic this by affirming the envier’s value.
Probably the most effective way to defuse envy is to become one with the other. If self and the enviable other overlap, the comparison evaporates. Close relationships researchers Art and Elaine Aron and their colleagues show that relationships thrive when people incorporate the other into the self.96 Overlapping the self with the other also facilitates empathy, of both the cognitive sort (understanding the other’s pain) and the emotional sort (feeling the other’s pain).
But we cannot merge with everyone. Simply trying to be likable as well as enviable undercuts the competition and encourages mutual cooperation. Sharing, as in holding a fiesta to spread the wealth, eases the tension. Claiming, as one award-winner did, that the individual recognition is “good for our tribe” places self and other on the same side…
* We compare partly to protect our fragile selves. Most of us compare our flawed past self to our new improved present self. Some of us maintain relationships by being sensitive to how we threaten others with our superior accomplishment. We change our own envy to inspiration, we shift our standards, and we use downward comparison to emphasize how much worse it could be. These are the self-protective mental gymnastics we practice with our comparisons, both up and down, to maintain our health and our homes.
* ARISTOTLE WAS among the first to tell us that we are profoundly collective beings. We prefer to be included: “We’d love you to join us” may be one of the most compelling human appeals. As chapter 3 noted, we have good adaptive reasons to be with others: we survive and thrive better if we are social than if we are isolates. Exclusion literally pains us, so to avoid being shunned, we aim to fit in with our own in-groups.1 Comparison facilitates our belonging because it shows us where we stand both within our groups and where our groups stand relative to other groups. Comparison between groups can be especially vicious, so envy and scorn between groups can be correspondingly brutal, as examples in this chapter will show. As group members, our first loyalty lies with our own group because we need it so much.
We may want to be individually distinctive, but not at the price of sacrificing membership in at least one worthwhile group that will have us, so we go along to get along.2 Our attunement with our own groups shows up in social contagion of all kinds, most immediately in emotions and perceptions.3 We imitate each other’s nonverbal behavior.4 Especially if anxious, we copy each other’s facial expressions and emotions.5 In fact, we unconsciously mimic even politicians’ facial expressions on television, which explains the electoral success of more than one warm, expressive, incompetent doofus.6 Not just our emotional contagion but our conformity to our groups is legion. We will even distort the evidence before our eyes, objective perceptual judgments, to fit in with a group.
* Conformity also shapes life-or-death decisions and outcomes, including those that affect our health. For example, binge-eating spreads through sororities: sorority sisters compare themselves with each other to gauge just the “right” amount of bingeing that correlates with popularity.8 Networks spread health habits and health standards across three degrees of separation; the obesity of your friend’s friend’s friend correlates with your own.9 In the decades-long Framingham Heart Study, investigators asked participants to nominate someone who would know how to reach them if they moved. Their nominations, the nominations of their nominees, and so on down the line, created networks of health influences.
* Nietzsche argued that inferiority promotes impotence: being bested makes a person feel helpless and hopeless. 2 Rather than take it out on ourselves, we find it far more soothing to blame someone else. Inferiority-based anger focuses on the fortunate precisely because facing our own shame is so intolerable. 3 And rightly so, for nothing is scarier than wounded pride: violence commonly erupts from threatened egoism, especially from an insecure egoist. Directing anger outward lets us avoid focusing on our own humiliation. 4 Comparisons thus lay the ground for violence because coming up short can be made the fault of someone else—or so it seems.
Small wonder, then, that both enviable and scornful individuals are unsettling. An enviable person makes everyone else feel inferior, but at least that agony is private. In contrast, a scornful person reveals our alleged inferiority, expressing our worthlessness. Both envying from below and being scorned from above trigger anger and humiliation… In either direction, enviable and scornful people provoke anxiety and insecurity.
* The specific costs of inferiority include public indignity and private humiliation. People care when both their public face and their private self-esteem are threatened by coming out on the bottom. And those who feel for any reason vulnerable are likely to be the most unsettled by the threat of inferiority.
On the other hand, it is famously lonely at the top. The specific risks of superiority include public embarrassment at being singled out and the private ruination of peace of mind and personal relationships. Many enviable people worry about other people’s reactions, namely, about the envy and resentment of other people. Privately, they may feel guilt or doubt about their position. The resentments of lower-status people may ruin their enjoyment of their position. Or lower-status people may bring down the elite, inadvertently by hard-luck contagion or purposely by demanding a share.
* Envy and scorn are reciprocal: the envied are supposedly competent, whereas the scorned are not supposed to possess much ability. The envied are supposedly coldhearted, but some of the scorned may be nice, at least those whose low status is not their fault. Why are these differences considered costs if each side gets at least some credit—ability, on the one hand, and niceness, on the other? We saw in the last chapter that high- and low-status groups divvy up the images, with high status claiming competence and low status claiming warmth. Why is this a problem if both sides agree on the division of assets?
* Assuming that elites are competent might seem a benign expectation, one fully in keeping with our collective faith in meritocracy, except for one thing: by linking status and competence, we too often make the reciprocal assumption that non-elites are stupid. And lower-status people rightly resent the implication of that expectation.
* We assume that high-status people are competent but not nice when we are comparing groups or individuals. 9 We all have a theory that smart people are cold, and that warm people are not too bright. It is unsettling to face an enviable (smart, high-status) person, because our default assumption is that this person is not on our side. So being one-down requires us to face not only our private envy, resentment, and humiliation but also the other person’s probable scorn, neglect, and even boasting.
* Low-status people have to be vigilant for another reason: from the position of the bottom looking up, status often correlates with power over resources, making their welfare contingent on the goodwill of those above them. 11 The superior’s intentions matter a lot to the subordinate: if the boss is with you, great; the boss can help you get where you want to go. If the boss is not with you, you cannot predict help from that quarter, so you have to keep an eye on this person.
* people can overcome their schadenfreude-glee by learning more about the other person. An investment banker who has been laid off but who keeps up appearances by commuting, with his briefcase, to Starbucks to search the want ads seems pathetic. If the same fallen master of the universe volunteers to advise and do pro bono bookkeeping for small business start-ups, he seems admirable.
* We cannot help ourselves. We have to compare because we are wired that way, as chapter 2 argued. Our brains are alert to upward comparisons, with the discrepancy-monitoring anterior cingulate cortex and the person-analyzing medial prefrontal cortex coming on line to react rapidly. Our brains respond to downward comparisons by activating systems consistent with disgust and other emotional arousal (insula). And when we can feel superior to those below us, the brain’s VS (ventral striatum) reward system lights up. Comparisons signal status via the envy and scorn emotions that alert us, and then our cognitive systems explain why we are feeling that way, up or down. Our behavior expresses those comparisons by revealing whether we feel larger than life or cut down to size. Still, being hardwired does not explain exactly why comparison happens—just partly how it happens. More reliable predictors of comparison fallout come from heeding other people’s insecurities.
Everyone engages in comparison, but some do it more than others, as chapter 3 indicated. This gets us partway to why. People who are individually oriented to social comparison lack self-confidence. They are people-oriented but also self-aware, even self-conscious. In the extreme, they are neurotic and unhappy—in a word, insecure. But an insecure personality alone does not predispose a person to making comparisons: only when feeling unhappy and out of control is the insecure person especially likely to obsess about who is above and who is below.
Not all lack of confidence is about anxiety, of course; sometimes we are simply uncertain and need to know more in order to compete effectively. This may be the reason for men’s greater tendency to compare, because male gender roles reward competitors. Women tend to prefer connection, which can be endangered by comparison, so they often avoid overt competition, except in gender-typed areas such as body image. Women do make themselves miserable by wishing for more perfect bodies and frequently lack confidence in the adequacy of their appearance. But, according to the research, men compare more generally. Whoever does it, all of us are definitely motivated to make comparisons by uncertainty about where we stand.
Ironically, comparison can create more uncertainty rather than relieve it; comparison may not always reassure. Even if brought on by circumstances, comparison malaise itself sounds like insecurity. Anytime we compare ourselves to someone else, we risk coming up short. Or we risk discovering that life is unfair. We have to value the potential for information over the potential for bad news.
* Why do we make comparisons? The answer boils down to information, self-defense, and group identity. As chapter 4 showed, we make comparisons to seek information that will help us predict and control our life outcomes when we are motivated by insecurity (or, more kindly, uncertainty).
* status. So without changing relative status, we can turn contempt and disgust into sympathy and pity when we see the other person’s perspective. This change does not improve the relative status of the stigmatized, but at least it puts people on the same team. Recognizing the humanity of even stigmatized others can make us feel more virtuous, valuable, and secure. When we catch ourselves at it, we prefer to think of ourselves as treating others as they deserve. But clearly, we can overcome our own tendency toward scorn when we take the trouble.
Envy On the other side, envying upward is even more irksome. But we might as well try to control our feelings of envy because they can be corrosive. According to Peter Salovey and Judith Rodin, we use three strategies to cope with our everyday envy:
• Self-reliance: Commit to your own business. Don’t give up. Control your resentment.
• Ignoring: Write it off. It’s not that important.
• Self-bolstering: You have other good qualities. 58
The first two of these intuitively sensible strategies focus on the cause of the envy, and they reportedly work well. The more emotion-focused coping strategy, self-bolstering, does reduce depression and anger, some of the emotional fallout from envy, so it works well in that way.
Besides these coping strategies, what do psychologists suggest? Julie Exline and Anne Zell propose several antidotes based on their analysis of the shame and secrecy that surround our feelings of envy. Drawing on the wildly successful techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy, they suggest that envy signals some unexamined assumptions that may be the root of the problem. 59 They would urge an envier to:
• Examine goals: Beliefs may be inaccurate (does a Corvette really make people happier?) or illogical (does a tidy desk really indicate productivity?) or unsubstantiated (how do I know whether that winning prize makes up for being lonely?). Changing core beliefs allows more adaptive, useful ones to run your life.
• Face deficits: Acknowledge limitations, and strive to improve in realistic ways. Accept yourself; balance awareness of challenges with gratitude valuing what you do have. 60
Even outside of therapeutic approaches, cognitive tricks can change your worldview. According to Mark Alicke and Ethan Zell, envy is all about social comparison, which is all relative. Compared to what? Compared with whom? They suggest the following:
• Shift time frames: No need to be stuck in the present. Instead of comparing with others, compare your own progress with your past and potential self. Have you not improved over time? Is the future promising?
• Question authority: Be subjective. Who says the other person is better? By what measure? Comparisons are always open to multiple interpretations.
• Channel anger: Maybe the comparison is unfair. If the enviable person has illegitimate success, then most of us feel angry. But anger is more mobilizing than envy, and resentment can be channeled into accomplishment.
• Control fate: If you have a chance to improve, then do it. Even if your rival’s circumstances are better, diligence is on your side, because you can control effort, even if you can’t control circumstances. 61
Longing is envy’s cousin. Benign envy wants to have what enviable others have, not to take it away from them. As one character put it in a novel by Henry James (William’s psychologically astute brother): “My envy’s not dangerous; it would not hurt a mouse. I don’t want to destroy the people—I only want to be them.” 62 Evidence for two types of envy comes from Niels van de Ven and his colleagues’ research showing that benign envy is oriented toward moving oneself up rather than bringing the other down. 63 Even though benign envy is still frustrating and unpleasant, because the comparison is explicit, nevertheless it is energizing because it allows more control than malicious envy does. Another suggestion, then, based on this research, would be:
• Move up: Use benign envy to motivate yourself.
Liking transforms envy into inspiration and admiration. We feel admiration when the distance between ourselves and another person is large and we not only identify with that person as part of our own team or tribe but wish the best for him or her. Acknowledging that relative status and competence differ between ourselves and envied others, we can focus on shared tribal loyalties, cuing friendliness and trust. And if the distance is not too great, self-improvement may seem possible. 64 How do we act on such admiration?
• Congratulate: Complimenting another person sincerely acknowledges that the other is deserving, links our fates, and allows us to be inspired.
* For each side of the envy-scorn mirror-window, concentrating on self blinds you to anything but your own reflection. But concentrating on the other makes you forget yourself as a target of either envy or scorn and attend to the other person’s feelings. In a relationship, this kind of responsiveness is a good thing. 65 Here are some ways to cultivate responsiveness, despite competition, in a close relationship.
Avoid Comparisons Partners and friends are reluctant to compare openly because it risks damage on both sides, whoever comes out on top or on bottom. 66 The concerned superior wants to spare the partner the public indignity and private humiliation, and of course the inferior wants to avoid having those feelings. Conversely, the concerned inferior wants to spare the outperforming partner public envy and private guilt; again, of course, the superior wants to avoid having those feelings. Let’s assume that both partners want to preserve the relationship and spare each other feeling one-up or one-down. (If they do not share that goal, then the relationship will soon degenerate into a state of each being in it alone, responsive only to self-interest. See prior section.) The simplest strategy deflects social comparisons in any potentially competitive domain. Spouses may minimize reports of their triumphs. Colleagues may discuss their toddlers to avoid discussing relative career accomplishments. High school classmates at a reunion may focus on the good old days to avoid awkward inequalities in the present.
Minimize Status Differences In a discordant relationship, partners envy each other’s good fortune or feel malicious joy (schadenfreude) at each other’s bad fortune. Responsive partners may share harmonious goals—what Fritz Heider called a “sympathetic identification”—in which they experience each other’s fortunes and misfortunes. True sympathy goes beyond mere emotional contagion. 67 To forge a harmonious relationship, the advantaged partner may downplay any privileges, disparaging or hiding them. This is the humble approach. 68 In close relationships, people worried about posing a threat to their partner may minimize any status differences by concealing their status, sabotaging themselves, self-deprecating, or promoting the partner, all efforts to close the gap. 69 In experimental games that simulate reciprocity in relationships, partners who come out ahead become hypercooperative and can alleviate the inequality by taking steps to reduce it. 70
Explain Away Any Differences In all relationships, origin stories (how we met) are cherished, but partners also value their shared mythology about relative expertise (who is good at what, and why). The partners carve up their expertise when each partner claims a valued domain. 71 One partner may be the scientist and the other the artist. This explains unequal accomplishment as grounded in distinctive talents. Sometimes partners can come to a mutual understanding by explaining any gap as fair. 72 For example, one partner may have made the effort to be a gourmet cook, whereas the other chose not to try; reporting the effort justifies the difference. 73 Expertise, talent, and motivation all are internal explanations.
Partners can also use external attributions to explain away difference. Explaining a success as a fluke minimizes any inherent differences, making the gap temporary. 74 Success stories that offer external, unstable, and uncontrollable factors (luck) make the teller seem modest and admirable. 75 In contrast, imputed arrogance comes from accounts that attribute success to internal, stable, uncontrollable, and desirable qualities, such as innate intelligence or beauty.
Reduce the Gap The person on top can lift the partner up. This has to be handled with delicacy, but if the protégé admires the mentor, improvement is possible, and over time the gap can diminish. As we have seen, envy gives way to admiration when we feel that we have an opportunity to improve. 76 So for the one-down partner, the one-up partner’s efforts can serve as an antidote to envy. And for the one-up partner, the appeal of the underdog increases if the one-down partner puts in the effort, thus deserving help and seeming more likable. 77
Mind the Relationship The key to concord is what Heider termed a “unit” relationship—one in which two people feel they belong together. Each includes the other in the self, as Arthur Aron, Elaine Aron, and their colleagues have so adroitly measured ( figure 7.6 ). 78
To encourage a unit relationship, emphasize the shared bond. For example, therapy works better when the therapist establishes co-membership early in the initial meeting. 79 That is, some kind of link to a mutual friend, a common identity, or a joint membership establishes safety and trust. In contrast, either envy or scorn signals a disconnect that needs repair. 80 Having a unit relationship ensures that comparison is not a zero-sum game because the partners’ interests overlap. 81 Cuing a “we” connection makes us think of our similarities instead of our differences. 82 To promote this sense of being a unit, we may placate our partner by investing in the relationship. 83 If we are worried about being envied, we will appease by helping and advising our envious partner.
* Value Others Our main antidotes to envy and scorn are making other people feel secure and valued, because these social comparison emotions arise from uncertainty. As Robert Vecchio shows, managers do well to heed the advice to praise and recognize their employees, to make them feel included and valued. 90 All of this soft diplomacy backfires if it is seen as manipulative, so sincerity and plausibility are key.