Study Suggests Older People Experience Envy Less Frequently

Researchers at UCSD have recently published a study suggesting that people envy those most similar to them and that the objects of their envy change with age. Their findings were published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology on Nov. 4.

UCSD graduate student and co-author of the study Nicole Henniger told the UCSD Guardian that people were more likely to envy those who were alike in age and gender than those who were not.

“These studies looked at whom people envy and are envied by,” Henniger said. “We found that people tend to envy same-gender, similar-age [people] and that being close to someone doesn’t necessarily protect against being envied.”

In conducting their study, the researchers looked at over 2,000 participants who could recall instances and experiences of envy. They found that young people tend to be more frequently envious than their older counterparts.

“We found that more of the younger participants could recall an envy experience — fewer of the older participants could recall recently having experienced envy,” Henniger said. “This suggests that, like other negative emotions, older people are less likely to experience envy.”

Psychology professor and senior author of the study Christine Harris also told the Guardian that what people envied depended on their age.

“One of our findings was that young people were not only more likely to report experiencing envy but that they were also envious of a greater number of things such as scholastic success, social success, looks and romantic success,” Harris said. “Older people’s envy tended to hone in more often on money and occupational success.”

Henniger explained to the Guardian how the study’s use of an incredibly diverse set of participants allows the researchers to better understand one of humanity’s most complex emotions.

“A lot of research in psychology is done using undergraduates as participants,” Henniger said. “When psychologists make conclusions based on that kind of sample, we don’t know whether the findings apply to older people or just to college students. This study used a large, diverse sample, so we can start to understand how envy occurs throughout the lifespan.”

Moreover, Henniger thinks that envy allows people to examine their feelings and to exert some form of control in order to enact change.

“Envy isn’t always a bad thing — sometimes our envy motivates us to improve ourselves,” she said. “These emotions that feel bad can actually have constructive effects sometimes, especially when you perceive that you can have some control in the situation.”

Similarly, UCSD psychology department chair Victor Ferreira thinks that people’s objects of envy are reflective of what they value.

“I think it’s a nice insight to see that younger folks tend to envy people’s looks and school performance, whereas older folks tend to envy people’s occupations and finances,” Ferreira said. “If you assume that young people tend to value looks and school performance a lot and older people tend to value jobs and finances, then it suggests that our envy is about things we value.”

Ferreira likened envy with competitiveness in sports to demonstrate how envy can be a positive force.

“If you’re a UCSD basketball player, it makes sense for you to envy your teammate — someone who is similar to you — because that may make it more likely that you’ll up your game and become a better basketball player,” Ferreira said. “It doesn’t make sense to envy LeBron James, because you’ll never be as good as LeBron James. It looks like that’s how envy works.”

UCSD’s psychology honor society president Shuying Yu also thinks that envy can be helpful but cautions that it can be a distraction.

“Envying others for what you lack in grades can be somewhat of a good thing if it motivates you to study more,” Yu said. “But I think comparing yourself, your progress and your experiences to other people in the long run can distract you from your personal goals and why you want to strive for those goals in the first place.”

Furthermore, Henniger and her team hopes to continue their studies to figure out causal factors that spark envy. They are looking to expand their research by examining the types of behavior that accompanies envy.

“We would like to use this research to identify factors that make envy more likely and test those factors in lab experiments,” Henniger said. “We are also interested in the different types of behaviors associated with envy, which can include hostility, depression and the motivation to self-improve.”