Jealous Society

10. May 2013 by Joachim Goldberg

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One can hardly blame governments around the world for going after tax evaders. Across Europe, finance ministers are battling to reduce budget deficits while at the same time trying to find resources for stimulus measures, and anti-capitalist upstarts are snapping at the electoral heels of the established parties. Sometimes the word ‘fairness’ slips into the discussion, but political leaders can hardly pretend that morality is the motivation for the siege on tax-havens. If that was the case, they would have acted long ago. The man-in-the-street cannot lay claim to a more finely-tuned moral compass either: not because he tries to rebalance the scales of justice by making a few cash-only tax-free transactions of his own, or blocking the entrance to his local branch of Starbucks, but because of the malicious delight he takes in the public downfall of former heroes.

Like smoke and fire, schadenfreude usually indicates a burning envy somewhere nearby. Envy is that nettling feeling a person experiences when he discovers that another has something – a good, a skill, or a particular status – that he values but does not have. The next best thing to climbing to the envied person’s status level is having that person fall back to his. As expressions of envy are socially unacceptable, the sentiment typically manifests itself as gloating.

Envy is the product of a desire – one could even say a need – for people to compare themselves with others. Humans are social animals and are keen to know their status or position in society. Social comparison is part of our nature. This is the reason why positional goods are so important; they serve as salient signals of social status to any onlookers. What’s more, according to social psychologist Susan T.Fiske, we all in a position where we envy those of a higher social status while scorning those with a lower status[1]. In fact, human beings are veritable ‘comparison machines’; every social contact begins with a swift evaluation of the relative social status, and this influences the subsequent behaviour. Most people will typically be surrounded by people who rank more favourably as well as some who rank less favourably than themselves. However, this doesn’t mean that envy and scorn cancel one another out. This is because the perception of loss that results from looking upward to someone on the social scale weighs more heavily than the perceived gain from a downward look. This means the sum of all social contacts will typically be a net perceived loss. Social comparison is therefore always a source of stress and unhappiness.

For some comparisons the gap is so huge it can hardly be evaluated. To someone on a minimum wage, a millionaire might as well be on another scale altogether. Similarly, a footballer in a local sports club will not readily compare himself with a player in the Premier League; the professional sportsman literally plays in a different league. The inability to measure the gap dulls the feelings of envy. Paradoxically, it is actually with people who compare similarly to us socially that these feelings of envy are the most palpable. So the greatest agony comes from social comparisons with friends, co-workers, neighbours, and family relatives. They are the ones who are transformed by envy into enemies. So if we are not genuinely envious of those who occupy the top ranks of society, why do we delight when they fall? Well, it is precisely the fall – the change in status – that we perceive. During the few days of scandal headlines, we are able to compare the fallen hero’s former status with the new one. Although the gap to our own status remains immeasurably large, the other person’s loss is still our gain. In addition, the discovery that a highly ranked person’s integrity has been found wanting, helps to put our perhaps borderline morality in a slightly better light.

[1] Susan T. Fiske (2011),  Envy Up, Scorn Down: How Status Divides Us


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