Is envy our default setting?

Yes. It requires mental effort to not be envious.

Via Peer Reviewed By My Neurons:

Envy is a shitty thing. In addition to feeling bad that there’s something you don’t have, you often feel bad about how stupid it is that you’re envious. The good news is that a new study by Jan Crusius and Thomas Mussweiler should alleviate the negative feelings that stem from the latter situation. Through a series of experiments they found that envy appears to be our default setting, and it is only through the unconscious expense of cognitive resources that we are able to avoid feeling envious.

The study he’s referring to is:

Envy is the unpleasant emotion that can arise when people are exposed to others with superior possessions. Common wisdom and scholarly opinion suggest that when people experience envy they may be motivated to obtain the others’ superior possession. Despite the vast interpersonal, societal, and economical consequences attributed to this potential aspect of envious responding, experimental demonstrations of the affective and behavioral consequences of envy-inducing situations are scarce. We propose that social comparisons with better-off others trigger an impulsive envious response that entails a behavioral tendency to strive for their superior good. However, given that the experience of envy is painful, self-threatening, and met with social disapproval, people typically attempt to control their envious reactions. Doing so requires self-control capacities, so that envious reactions may only become apparent if self-control is taxed. In line with these predictions, four experiments show that only when self-control resources are taxed, upward comparisons elicit envy paired with an increased willingness to pay for, to spontaneously purchase and to impulsively approach the superior good.

Source: “When people want what others have: The impulsive side of envious desire.” from Emotion. 2012 Feb;12(1):142-53.

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