Envy has its benefits

Bryan Caplan writes:

If people envy people richer than themselves, I say we should fight envy, not inequality. A number of people have objected that “Envy is ‘hard-wired.'” They’re right – but it doesn’t matter.

“[H]ard-wired” does not mean fixed. All humans may feel these emotions to some extent. But there’s plenty of room to maneuver. You can become less envious than you are. Make an effort to monitor your thoughts and behavior. Count your blessings. Give credit where credit is due. Focus on improving yourself instead of comparing yourself to other people. Spend more time with less envious people.

We are “hard-wired” to feel envy as, historically, those who felt envy were more reproductively successful. Presumably it is a driver behind the success of some people -they aspire to the levels of status, wealth and power of those they envy – and as a result, they were better able to attract mates. In a post supportive of Caplan’s position, David Henderson characterises envy as “self-destructive”. In an evolutionary sense, envy could not have been self-destructive (on average) for it to become “hard‑wired” and so ubiquitous. I am not aware of any evidence that this has changed.

So what would the world look like if there was less or no envy? It may be a less dynamic, interesting and creative world than the one we live in. How many people have created an invention or business with envy of others a motivating factor? Envy has its benefits.

If Caplan’s encouragement to be less envious did work (although I consider convincing many people is a lost cause), it may be a temporary result. The less envious person might be happier. But they may also have less status, wealth and power and a reduced ability to attract a mate. To the extent there are less “envy free” people in next generation, envy will be back.

Having said the above, I do try to follow Caplan’s advice – but not always successfully.


  1. I was thinking about the other effect of envy also, when I read that. (You kind of live it being Swedish, and, I have an Aussie husband, so I figure you may have experience this too). The tall poppy syndrome, or as we call it “Jante lagen”, but where it evidently is some evidence of its function. Envy is (sometimes) triggered by what is perceived as an unfair windfall. Illgotten gains. Damned hedgefund managers!

    And, if I know my anthropology right (flettingly and superficially as it may be), there is this mechanism where one does play down high abilities/windfall etc (the big hunter – not boasting, not being impressed).

    It also turns up in Turchins War and Peace and War. You have an upper class who is a warrior class, who are more wealthy than the peasant. But, they also will put their lives at stake to defend the peasants. Their wealth seems thus justified (they may pay a huge price for it). But, as the generations went on, and the wealthier got more ridiculously wealthy, and took less real risks, resentment started bubbling.

    Someone very wealthy who became wealthy by enriching/defending lots of us peons (I’m thinking Bill Gates or Steve Jobs here – who got us cool stuff like personal computers and iphones and all that ) seem less – envy inducing than, um, hedgefund managers and wallstreet CEO’s who ended up having to be bailed out.

    (OK, so that may be anekdata from this N of one, but it is certainly researchable – and I think Susan Fiske has done something on it, if I recall).

    Of course – it is one of the deadly sins….

    1. Experimental results seem to show that humans have a strong sense of fairness – and that must relate to feelings of envy. But I can assure you that the tall poppy syndrome remains alive and well down here, regardless of how they “earned” the gains.

  2. While it is self-obvious for anyone familiar with evolution, it is still worth mentioning, that some trait (like envy) being evolutionarily fixed in population is a function of the past, not present environment.
    So it may be perfectly reasonable position, that while envy was certainly useful trait during most of human history, it may still be counterproductive to mating success in postmodern society. After all certain physical selection factors seem to be mostly eliminated in western societies and replaced instead by “psychological” selection factors. How many children do CEO-s and investment bankers have in average, compared to modest, conservative Christian families?

  3. That explains why I’m not keen on evolutionary psychology (aside from the fact I’m not into social darwinism and other right-of-center ideas): “It exists, therefore it’s adaptive” as a starting point appears to be an invitation to curve-fitting.

    1. One of the better arguments on this point is by Stephen Pinker in an Edge article I blogged about a few months ago. Pinker states:

      Of course one can come up with evolutionary hypotheses that can explain anything; one can come up with non-evolutionary hypotheses that can explain anything, too. The question is, do these hypotheses make testable predictions that are confirmed? In the case of evolutionary explanations, the answer is a clear “yes.” In a 2003 Psychological Bulletin article, David Buss listed fifty novel predictions about social behavior derived from evolutionary theory, most of which had been supported at the time by empirical tests. Entire fields of social-psychological research—on violence, love, beauty, motherhood, religion, sexual desire, parent-offspring conflict, dominance, status, self-conscious emotions, and yes, sex differences (which everyone in the world but Wilson thinks is an important phenomenon)—have been driven by tests of evolutionary hypotheses. Many other evolutionary hypotheses—the nepotism theory of homosexuality, for example, and the Trivers-Willard hypothesis applied to female infanticide—have been empirically falsified as well, leaving the phenomena in question unexplained. It’s simply not true that evolutionary hypotheses that make correct empirical predictions can “explain anything.”

  4. The same argument can be made for vanity. Works for me. There’s only so far I slide into physical demise before the weight rack at the gym looks better than the image in my mirror. All hail vanity!

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