Niels van de Ven: "The bright side of a deadly sin: The psychology of envy"

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Niels van de Ven: "The bright side of a deadly sin: The psychology of envy"

On November 13, 2009 Niels van de Ven successfully defended the PhD thesis entitled "The bright side of a deadly sin: The psychology of envy" at Tilburg University.

Prof.dr. M. Zeelenberg, UvT
Prof.dr. R. Pieters, UvT


Envy is the painful emotion caused by the good fortune of others. This emotion is condemned by the major religions, and is for example one of the seven deadly sins in the Catholic tradition. This is not without reason, as earlier research confirmed that envy often leads to destructive behavior. However, the general motivational goal of envy is to level the difference with the superior other, and this can also be accomplished via a motivation to improve one’s own position.

To test this idea, we first examined the experience of envy and found evidence for the existence of two types of envy, one being more destructive (malicious envy) and the other being more constructive (benign envy). In a series of studies investigating the consequences of experiencing envy, we indeed found that participants who were benignly envious increased their motivation to study more and actually performed better on an intelligence task. Although many people think that after an upward social comparison it is the feeling of admiration that inspires and activates a motivation to improve oneself, it actually turns out to be the negative feeling of benign envy that does. The current findings provide new insights into for example the effect role models have on people, on social influence in consumer behavior, and on how people can function in groups in which some people are better off than others.

Furthermore, in the final empirical chapter we reversed the lens and investigated how people respond when they are better than others, in a position in which they could be envied. We find that if people expect to be maliciously envied by others, they will behave more prosocially as a result, in an attempt to ward off the potentially destructive effects of malicious envy. Envy thus also serves a useful group function, being a social glue that helps foster cohesion when some people do better than others.

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