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Why It’s Better to Envy Than Admire Your Friends’ Bank Accounts

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Photo by Tim Sackton

Is envy a better motivator than admiration?

A group of Dutch scientists had a question: which is more motivating, envy or admiration? To find out, they had groups of college students recall and describe either a person they felt “benign envy” toward, a person they felt “malicious envy” towards, or a person that they felt “admiration” towards. Later, they had them do a word association task. The students who described the person they felt “benign envy” towards did better on the task!

Now, the scientists had a hypothesis: envy (specifically, benign envy) is a better motivator than admiration. For the next study, they had students read about successful scientists, say whether they felt “envy” or “admiration,” and then say whether the reading would effect their future behavior.

[Related: Why your kids expect to be rich]

The students who felt envy said they planned to work harder the next semester, while the students who felt admiration, did not. Here’s another interesting twist: The students who felt envy, and the students who felt admiration had read different passages! The ones who felt “envy” had read about a scientist who received success because of hard work. The ones who felt “admiration” had read about a scientist who received success because of a lot of lucky breaks.

So what does this study have to do with us? It shows us that envy is a powerful motivator, even more so than admiration, and that we are envious of someone’s success only when we think it’s within our own grasp. The students who read about the scientist with the string of lucky breaks weren’t envious of him, because his success was out of their reach, no matter how hard they worked. But the students who read about the scientist who worked hard and met success saw that if they worked hard, they could also meet the same success.

Inspired by the study, I made a list of people that I consider more successful than I am, and then I tried to decide if I felt envy or admiration for them. These are not their real names:

  • Becky — has two masters degrees, spent a year doing AIDS research in Africa (admiration)
  • Amy — has no credit card debt, saves all her money, planning on going back to school (envy)
  • Meg — has a huge house, a good job, a husband with a good job, and goes on international vacations twice a year (admiration)
  • Jo — has a masters, a good career, has paid down her debt, saving for a house (envy)

So this is not a perfect science, but I found that my gut reaction (either envy or admiration) was pretty in line with what the Dutch scientists found! I have admiration for Becky and Meg, but their successes aren’t what I want, or frankly, could even go out and get. Becky is a super genius, and a lot of what I perceive as Meg’s success comes from being in a two-income household.

Amy and Jo, however, instill a little bit of envy in me. They are in many ways on the same path that I am on, but they’re a little further along on it: they’ve paid down their debts (or never accumulated them in the first place); they are saving money; they either have or are working on master’s degrees. I’m envious because I want what they have: stability, goals, no debt, some money in the bank. And I also know that it’s doable! So next time I think of Amy and Jo, I’m going to think about how I want to be like them, and how I’m working to make it happen.

What about you? Who are you envious of? Who do you admire?

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