Malicious Envy, Benign Envy, and Deservingness

a closeup photo of a very green eye
Image by Kyle MacKenzie / CC BY

At this point, Poly Land has featured a number of articles on jealousy (including this article that many have found quite helpful in coping with jealousy).

As I’ve mentioned before, it can be difficult when experiencing jealousy to figure out exactly what you’re feeling. Jealousy isn’t a single discrete emotion but a system of emotions, typically some mixture of fear, anger, or sadness.

Further complicating the problem, jealousy is also very easily confused with envy, a different emotional experience.

Yeah, jealousy and envy aren’t the same thing.

When researchers study romantic jealousy, they normally define it, somewhat narrowly, as fear and/or resentment that someone else is trying to take away someone or something that you value. This specific form of jealousy is marked by feeling insecure and threatened (e.g., Salovey, p. 18).

And they distinguish it from envy, which is simply wanting something else that someone else has that you do not, without any added threat or fear that something you value might be taken away from you (e.g., Salovey, p. 23).

So if your’e feeling envy, that’s simple, right? Straightforward.

Well, here’s the thing. There’s actually a couple of different types of envy identified in research.

The Two Faces of Envy

The most extensive envy researcher to date is Dutch researcher Neils van de Ven. In his work, he differentiates between two different types of envy:

  • Benign envy
  • Malicious envy

While both forms of envy can be painful for the person experiencing them, they tend to motivate the envious person to act in different ways.

Someone with benign envy will respond to the feeling by being inspired to attempt to improve one’s own position. While painful, benign envy can actually a very constructive experience, motivating someone to work harder to achieve their goals.

Conversely, someone who has malicious envy will react to it by attempting to attack or pull down the person they are envious of. Malicious envy is very destructive.

What causes a person to feel benign instead of malicious envy (or vice versa)? Van de Van links it to a concept called deservingness.

Feeling As If That Person Deserves Success

Deservingness is essentially whether the envious person feels like the successful person deserves their success. If they feel like that other person achieved success because they are talented, skilled, and/or hard-working, then they are more likely to experience benign envy.

If, however, they feel like that other person were simply lucky or earned their success via cheating, nepotism, or unfair arbitrary connections, they are more likely experience malicious envy.

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It’s really interesting work and something I’ve definitely seen out in the wild. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that some of whether a given person seems to lean towards benign or malicious envy is based on their overall attitude about the world and why things happen to people.

In other cases, I’ve seen an overinflated sense of self also playing a huge part. Someone who thinks they’re fantastic at endeavors that they aren’t actually that good at will find the success of others that they (wrongly) view as less talented or beneath them particularly offensive.

Anyway, it’s interesting nonetheless — and something to keep in mind.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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