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Features : Editorial Last Updated: Mar 13, 2013 - 10:52:13 AM


What motivates people more: envy or admiration?
By Steve Ferber
Mar 13, 2013 - 10:51:21 AM

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Don’t sell envy short. It can be a strong motivating force in our lives.
In study after study, researchers found that when people envy others – as opposed to simply admiring them – it motivates them to do better. But there’s one cautionary note: we must choose our heroes wisely. We must focus on people who are doing just a little bit better than us, not those outside of our reach.
The interplay between envy and admiration is an interesting one. Both come into play when we view another’s person’s success, but recent research maintains that these feelings are strikingly different in their power to move us. A PsyBlog entry, published at spring.org.uk, quotes from a recent paper by van de Ven et al (2011):
“ . . . being envious of another's achievements is painful. To avoid that pain we translate envy into admiration. In other words: we admit defeat. The other person's achievements are beyond us; we must resign ourselves to being inferior. Unfortunately once we've translated envy into admiration, we lose the motivational power of that envy.”
When it comes to envy, it’s important to note that, in terms of motivation, we’re talking about “benign envy,” not “malicious envy.”  The difference is whether you feel that the person’s success is deserved. In other words, malicious envy (a sense that a person’s success is undeserved) is most often a destructive force, leading people to strike out in a bid to “bring someone down.” But benign envy, properly channeled, can help us grow and reach new heights.
A second article at PsyBlog (spring.org.uk) explained four ways in which benign envy is good for you:
1.  Benign envy motivates, “as long as you compare yourself to the right person,” according to the PsyBlog article.
2. Benign envy feels good.  The PsyBlog entry points out: “When we see other people doing better than us it can give us hope, which makes us feel good.”
3. Benign envy makes you more creative, because when we compare ourselves to others, our performance improves, according to a 2007 Johnson & Stapel study on creativity.
4. Benign envy makes you smarter. PsyBlog cites a 1999 study by Blanton et al, which found that “students who compared themselves with others tended to do better in school.”
Said Simon Latham, author of "The Science of Sin: The Psychology of the Seven Deadlies (and why they are so good for you)" (as quoted in PsyBlog):
“If you have the good fortune to observe a skilled performer, you watch, you learn and so you perform better . . .. Envy can change your expectations about what it is possible to achieve.”
Other research findings:
•  Envy vs. admiration – a study out of Tilburg University (Tilburg, The Netherlands) concluded that benign envy was a motivating force “only when people thought self-improvement was attainable. When participants though self-improvement was hard . . . [that] led to more admiration and no motivation to do better.”
• Do superstars motivate us?  Again, only when their success seems attainable. A study authored by Penelope Lockwood and Ziva Kunda (University of Waterloo) found that “Relevant superstars provoke self-enhancement and inspiration when their success seems attainable but self-deflation when it seems unattainable.”

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