Envy rather than admiration motivates people to better themselves

Why envy outperforms admiration

From Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin

This paper considers what motivates people to improve themselves. Across four studies the authors find that benign envy stimulates better performance. They reveal that admiration feels good but does not lead to a motivation to improve oneself. This has been labelled happy self-surrender, a feeling that the other is so good at something that one can only look with appreciation at how good the other is. Benign envy (not malicious envy), on the other hand, feels frustrating but it does lead to a motivation to improve. Labelled unhappy self-assertion, a negative feeling about oneself that arises from a comparison to the outstanding other but that does elevate effort and performance. So, the answer to the question whether to admire or to be envious might depend on what matters most: feeling better or performing better.


Four studies tested the hypothesis that the emotion of benign envy, but not the emotions of admiration or malicious envy, motivates people to improve themselves. Studies 1 to 3 found that only benign envy was related to the motivation to study more (Study 1) and to actual performance on the Remote Associates Task (which measures intelligence and creativity; Studies 2 and 3). Study 4 found that an upward social comparison triggered benign envy and subsequent better performance only when people thought self-improvement was attainable. When participants thought self-improvement was hard, an upward social comparison led to more admiration and no motivation to do better. Implications of these findings for theories of social emotions such as envy, social comparisons, and for understanding the influence of role models are discussed.

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Article details
van de Ven, N., Zeelenberg, M., & Pieters, R. (2011). Why Envy Outperforms Admiration Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin DOI: 10.1177/0146167211400421

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