Under what circumstances does emotion trump logic?

Psychology: why we are jealous

But they could then take revenge. A push of a button was enough to secretly lower the account balance of your teammates. For this, however, they had to cede a commission. Nevertheless, two thirds of the test subjects took advantage of this offer - even though they had to reduce their already tighter budget for it. The amount of the fee hardly played a role: Even if they paid 25 percent of the amount deducted, two thirds of the test subjects still expropriated their privileged teammates.

This created a lose-lose situation: the participants preferred to leave the test laboratory with less money in their pockets than to allow the others a higher profit. This does not go well with the traditional view that people are always maximizing their own profits. One could explain this with a pronounced sense of justice on the part of the test subjects. Or with sheer envy.

»Envy drives us to reduce the distance to the superior comparison standard«
(Jan Crusius, social psychologist)

But what is the purpose of a feeling that urges us to make such seemingly irrational decisions? »You can understand it as an alarm signal: Something is going wrong, I have to react. That can be a strong motivator, ”explains Jan Crusius. "Envy drives us to reduce the distance to the superior comparison standard." This can be done in two different ways: Either you try to become more successful yourself. A recreational athlete might want to train harder in order to outperform her rivals. This is what Crusius and his colleagues call "benign envy."

His counterpart, "malicious envy", is spurned. This drives people to grudge others' success and to dispute their status. The athlete could try, for example, to mentally downplay the performance of her competitors ("They were just lucky!") - or even to deliberately harm them in order to be number one on the podium from now on. The results of Zizzo's lottery experiment also provide a striking example of malicious envy.

A pinch of envy can inspire you

However, not all of Crusius' fellow researchers agree with this distinction. Some consider benign and malignant envy to be two sides of the same coin, which ultimately only vary in the degree of their social desirability. In some empirical studies, however, there are differences between the two types of envy. “We visited the Cologne Marathon for a study. When the runners were picking up their start numbers, we had them quickly fill out a questionnaire that was supposed to record their persistent inclination towards the two types of envy, ”says Crusius.

Series "The Seven Deadly Sins"

Pride, avarice, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, indolence - these are the seven deadly sins in Christian doctrine. The term "mortal sin" is basically misleading because it actually refers to seven vices that make people sinners in the first place. On »Spektrum.de« we present all seven deadly sins from a scientific point of view.

Part 1: can we be proud?
Part 2: Don't freak out!
Part 3: The cherries in the neighbour's garden

He and his colleague Jens Lange were able to win almost 500 test subjects for their study. Those runners who tended towards benign envy set themselves more ambitious goals - and also ran faster than the other runners, as the two researchers were able to reconstruct based on their start numbers. Malicious envy, on the other hand, was not related to running speed. However, runners with a tendency to this tend to avoid setting specific goals for the marathon. In a correlative study like this one, of course, it is difficult to separate cause and effect: Was it really benign envy that spurred the runners on? Or were other factors ultimately decisive for the victory?