The Evolutionary Psychology of Envy

Sarah E. Hill and David M. Buss

in Envy

Published in print October 2008 | ISBN: 9780195327953
Published online April 2010 | e-ISBN: 9780199301485 | DOI:
The Evolutionary Psychology of Envy

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At first glance, envy appears to be a maladaptive emotion. A great deal of subjective distress, workplace angst, and sibling rivalry owes itself to this potentially destructive emotion. Envy, however, is as ubiquitous as it is socially undesirable. Young children and adults alike are quick to take note when something is “not fair,” although over time they become more adept at keeping such observations to themselves. The recognition of another's advantage, and the feelings of unfairness and hostility that sometimes follow, are an important part of what it means to be human. Despite its reputation as being distasteful, tacky, petty, and downright gauche, it is likely that envy has played an important role in humans' quest for the resources necessary for successful survival and reproduction over the course of evolutionary time. This chapter provides an evolutionary psychological account of envy. First, it explores the hypothesized function of envy by detailing the adaptive problems for which it is hypothesized to be an evolved solution. It then addresses how an evolutionary account of envy organizes existing empirical discoveries about the nature of envy. Finally, the chapter presents suggestions for future directions of envy research that are made possible when viewing this emotion from an evolutionary psychological perspective.

Keywords: envy; evolution; maladaptive emotion; evolutionary account

Chapter.  5600 words. 

Subjects: Social Psychology

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