The behavioral consequences of envy can be either destructive or emulative. Which of these facettes are prompted by distinct cultural and socio-economic environments?
How do you react if you encounter a person with a fancy car or expensive clothes that you would like to own but cannot afford? If it makes you feel envious, what would be the consequences? Would you try to work harder, to be able to afford the things one day, or would you talk pejoratively about the other person?
Envy is a most intriguing social emotion because it is exclusively elicited by a core feature of human sociality: relative social standing. There is but one process that generates envy: upward social comparison. Envy is a human universal found in almost any known culture, and at the same time closely linked to culture-specific appraisals of social comparison. Remarkably, the behavioral consequences of envy can be quite opposite: either destructive and conflictual or emulative and competitive, with profoundly different consequences for societies and social relationships. These qualities provoke the question whether characteristics of distinct cultural and socio-economic environments systematically prompt one or the other form of envy in response to upward social comparison.
The project investigates this question by examining envy-responses to identical comparison situations with participants from different cultures. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging and semi-structured interviews, we assess cross-cultural differences in the experience of both kinds of envy. We hypothesize that distinct envy responses between participants with different cultural background can be explained by differences in ego- and socio-centric orientation as well as in socio-economic background between these cultural groups.
The study sheds light on the socio-cultural dynamics in processing genuinely social stimuli on a psychophysiological level and holds policy-implications with respect to potentially detrimental behavioral effects of perceived inequality.