Behavioral manifestations of envy
by Chetan Parikh
  
 Mail this article to a friend
Previous Back  

In a lovely book “Alchemies of the Mind”, the author, Jon Elster, writes on envy.

 

“Although the immediate action tendency of envy is to destroy the envied object or its possessor, this is only the most direct behavioral manifestation of envy. There are many other acts that would never have been carried out in the absence of envy. They may be classified along two dimensions. On the one hand, they may be actions under­taken by the envious, by the envied person, or by third parties. On the other hand, they may be undertaken in order to reduce envy or to provoke it. Of the six combinations, we never observe the envi­ous person acting intentionally to intensify his envy, although some of his envy-inspired actions may in fact have this outcome. We do, however, observe the other five cases.

 

1)     The direct behavioral expression of envy is targeted towards the envied person or his possessions. This is the primary behavioral phenomenon from which the others are derived. As a first example, consider the lack of public toilet facilities in New York City. Although these have been successfully installed in many European cities, and an experimental trial in New York was very successful, the idea was eventually scrapped. Spokespersons for the disabled resisted the in­stallment of toilets that could not accommodate them. The authori­ties resisted the installment of toilets big enough to accommodate the disabled, because they would be "big enough to hold more than one person, and thus big enough to attract drug users, prostitutes, and vagrants." In theory, both objections could be met by installing separate toilets for the handicapped. "In Europe, wheelchair-ready kiosks are kept locked and can only be used by handicapped people, who have magnetic cards to open them." Yet, "Anne Emerman, director of the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities.. . passionately insisted that under city law, each and every unit must be large enough for a wheelchair." Mayor Dinkins observed that the handicapped "see that to have a special unit that is different than that for others as being discriminatory." Although there is no reason to think that the advocacy for a unified system of large toilets rather than a dual system was due to envy, the preference for no system at all over a unified system of small toilets can more plausibly be imputed to that motive - nobody shall have what not all can have. If this inter­pretation is correct, the disabled may end up being worse off than be­fore: They do not get the toilets, and others believe them to be envious.

 

Political systems that are both egalitarian and totalitarian seem to spawn envy. In China, during the Cultural Revolution, farmers with fruit trees were ordered to cut them down. Eastern Europe, an anecdote about strong envy is told in and about many countries. A fairy visits a farmer and tells him that because she was unable to assist at his baptism, she will now fulfill any wish he might have, on the condition that his neighbor gets twice what he asks for. After a moment's reflection, he asks her to tear out one of his eyes. I cited the Jacobin tendency to destroy church spires that were higher than the surrounding buildings. Louis Reau, from whose history of vandalism I take this example, distinguishes between "unavowed" (he means "unavowable") and "avowable" motives for vandalism, envy being one of the former. Among his examples is the tendency for sovereigns to destroy all traces of their predecessors, by destroying their effigies or planishing inscriptions celebrating their exploits. Note that because destruction is costly, these acts illustrate strong rather than weak envy. An important reason why not more spires were destroyed during the French revolution was in fact the cost of demolishing them - indicating a relatively weak degree of envy.

 

The converse case of destruction out of envy is that of construc­tion out of malice. Early German law had statutes forbidding "envi­ous building" (Neidbau), defined as "when a prospective building is planned clearly to the detriment of a neighbour and without pressing need, or where such building has little or no purpose, while repre­senting great damage, and loss of light and air, to the neighbour." In English and especially in American common law, we find similar bans on "spite fences." The behavior targeted by such laws would be motivated by malice; in fact, given the costs of construction, by strong malice. The need for the laws suggests that such practices were not uncommon. For another instance of malice, we may take Abram de Swaan's claim that" It is ... ill-will at the possible advan­tages of another group in society which colours the resistance of the petite bourgeoisie against the social insurance schemes for industrial workers." The petty bourgeoisie resented that workers were given for nothing the protection against disease and unemployment that they had provided out of their own savings and that was a main status distinction between the two classes. Here, malice is the un­avoidable by-product of the search for prestige and status.

 

2)     Envy-enjoyment may induce various kinds of behavior: Acquiring more than one would have otherwise, displaying one's possessions more prominently than one would have otherwise, un­dermining the situation of others to stimulate their envy, or im­proving it for the same purpose. Veblen - the central writer on envy-provocation - emphasizes the first two strategies. He argued that among the "incentives to acquisition and accumulation," a cen­tral component was "the desire to excel in pecuniary standing and so gain the esteem and envy of one's fellow-men." Conspicuous consumption is an instance of the second strategy: "Costly entertain­ments, such as the potlatch or the ball, are peculiarly adapted to serve this end. The competitor with whom the entertainer wishes to insti­tute a comparison is, by this method, made to serve as a means to the end. He consumes vicariously for his host at the same time that he is a witness to the consumption of that excess of good things which his host is unable to dispose of single-handedly, and he is also made to witness his host's facility in etiquette." The third strategy is diffi­cult to distinguish from malicious behavior. The referee who writes a negative report on a colleague's grant proposal or votes against his membership in a scientific academy may do so to maintain the other's envy as well as his own feeling of superiority. For the fourth strategy to work, two conditions must be satisfied: The alleviation of B's inferiority caused by A's gift to B must be more than offset by the aggravation of inferiority caused by A's display of generosity, and the subsequent increase in A: s envy-enjoyment must be large enough to compensate for his loss of income.

 

3)     To avoid being the target of destructive envy, one can either di­vest oneself of one's assets or hide them. As noted above, divestiture may be self-defeating if it takes the form of a transfer to the envious. Outright destruction of assets might not achieve the goal either, be­cause it suggests an enviable lack of concern for the envied goods. The envious will not be content until he sees the envied person being stripped of his assets against his will, a feat that is hard to achieve at will. One may, however, try to create the appearance that the assets were destroyed nonvoluntarily. This strategy is similar to the much more frequent form of envy-reduction that consists in hiding one's assets from the sight of the envious. "In Haiti, G. E. Simpson found that a peasant will seek to disguise his true economic position by purchasing several smaller fields rather than one larger piece of land. For the same reason he will not wear good clothes. He does this intentionally to protect himself against the envious black magic of his neighbours." In Ghana, a man who was believed (correctly) by his relatives to be very rich managed to reduce their envy by building "a house which he purposely left unfinished so that he could tell his relatives, 'You see, I have no more money, I am a poor man.''' In a Mexican village, fear of envy rather then fear of robbery was the main reason for the refusal to install glass windows in the house.

 

4)     Acts of envy-reduction or envy-avoidance may also be under­taken by third parties. Parents, for instance, will try to minimize envy among siblings, sometimes with the effect of generating resent­ment towards themselves. A small girl was promised a pair of roller skates for going to the dentist. The promise was kept, but she was upset when her younger sisters got the same reward without having done anything for it. At a large scale, redistributive tax policies have been interpreted in this light. Tax policies can, in fact, be seen in all three perspectives. If political power is in the hands of the relatively poor, they may impose progressive taxation even beyond the point at which they benefit from it (strong envy), If it is in the hands of the rich, they can tax themselves to prevent the poor from rebelling out of envy. If political power is in the hands of a decaying aristocracy or a middle class of functionaries, they can similarly tax the rich to assuage the envy of the poor. Yet although such envy-based expla­nations of taxation are quite common, they are also quite commonly based in a right-wing ideology. I have not seen any attempt to provide empirical evidence that this motivation has in fact been operating. If there are cases in which popular demand has forced taxes up to a level at which the negative impact on work incentives is so strong as to decrease total tax revenue, I would suspect that the motive is unenlightened self-interest or a short time horizon rather than envy. Below I discuss other cases - in classical Greece and prerevolutionary France - in which it is hard to prove the superiority of envy-based over interest-based explanations.

 

5)     Envy can also be provoked by a third party, as part of a divide and conquer strategy. Thus, one of the deadliest weapons in the arsenal of psychological warfare is propaganda aimed at convinc­ing some segments of the enemy group that they are suffering more hardships or are gaining fewer benefits than other segments of the group." Here, as elsewhere, it is important to distinguish genuine cases of divide et impera from the superficially similar phenomenon of tertius gaudens. A's envy of B may de facto work to the benefit of C, but we should avoid the fallacious functionalist inference that C as been instrumental in creating the envy.”