DUCKWORTH: Oh, I’m better than that person. Oh, worse than that one.
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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: Is our society built on envy?
DUBNER: He actually does something useful. And I just sit here and talk to people.
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DUBNER: Angela, we have a question from a listener named Josh Whitton in Vancouver, British Columbia. What a place that is.
DUCKWORTH: Got engaged there.
DUBNER: Did you? Why?
DUCKWORTH: What do you mean why? Because Jason asked me to marry him there. I don’t know.
DUBNER: I kind of figured that part. Why were you there?
DUCKWORTH: Well, we were on vacation.
DUBNER: Do you think the vacation proposal is the right move?
DUCKWORTH: You know, it rained continuously every day that we were there, except for, like, two hours. And during that two-hour respite he asked me to marry him, which was a lovely little contrast.
DUBNER: I wonder if anyone will be envious hearing about you getting proposed to in a distant foreign country, Canada. We’ve addressed envy on this show before.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, we talked about comparison a lot.
DUBNER: But now in the context of this series that we’re in the middle of on the seven deadly sins — envy, of course being one of them — Josh Whitton has what I think is a really interesting question: “What does envy mean now when we live in a society dependent on our envy?” What I gather Josh is getting at is the idea that our modern capitalist society is built around a consumer culture that relies on a lot of people buying a lot of stuff, and that envy is a useful marketing tool for all that buying. What do you think when you encounter this question?
DUCKWORTH: I don’t know what he means when he says, “What does envy mean now when we live in a society dependent on our envy?” But, first thing that leapt to my mind was less the kind of consumer culture or capitalism, and just more social media. We have these technologies that allow us to compare ourselves — and not only allow us, like, almost encourage us to compare ourselves to others. Even if the tendency to compare ourselves to others is timeless — it’s always been that human beings compare themselves to their neighbors, or even their siblings — but the ways that we can do it have changed enormously. I had this conversation with my two daughters about social media — in particular, Amanda and I were going back and forth on this — and I was asking her, I’m like, “You’re young.” She was like, “I’m 21.” I was like, “Okay, you’re younger than me. What do you think about social media? Do you think it’s as harmful as 52-year-olds think it is? Or are we misunderstanding a generational change?” And I think she comes down on the, “Oh, yeah. It’s harmful” side of things. But just to the point of: what is social media really letting us do? I said to Amanda, “Social media enables you to be omniscient. Because of social media, you can see the whole world. Now you can compare your singing to Adele and Taylor Swift and also your neighbor.” And she said, “I don’t know if it’s omniscience because you get a very selective glimpse into the world.”
DUBNER: I’m with Amanda because even more than selective, it’s selective in the positive. This has been the argument for probably 15 years now; the reason that social media can be so damaging, especially to younger people — although I’ve seen plenty of older people get damaged by it, too — is that it presents the best version of all the other people. There’s almost no way for you to not feel lesser than on some dimension. Do you think that’s the kind of envy that Josh was writing about?
DUCKWORTH: Again, I’m not sure about what Josh is writing about, but if I were writing about it — you know, the extent to which envy can be considered a modern ailment — I think that would be the very first thing that would leap to mind.
DUBNER: It’s interesting that you and I went to different places with this question. You went to the personal realm, really, which makes sense because we’re talking about the seven deadly sins and sins are thought of as individual transgressions usually. But I was actually thinking more the economic realm, which is interpreting Josh’s question as more about consumerism. But, I also am interested in how envy, according to some scholars, has become a political tool. So, this is a piece from the Academy of Ideas. I’ll just read you a little bit: “Stretching back to the time of the ancient Greeks, countless philosophers have contemplated the nature of envy, or what Immanuel Kant described as ‘the tendency to perceive with displeasure the good of others.'” Nice definition from Kant. “Those who have written about envy, be it Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Adam Smith, Schopenhauer, or Nietzsche, have all come to a similar conclusion: Envy is a destructive and diseased state of mind that harms not only the envier, but those whom the envy is directed towards and society as a whole. But today, the personal vice of envy has been made into a virtue by politicians. By manipulating the human tendency to envy, politicians have stumbled upon a very effective means of gaining power and control over largely unsuspecting populations.” What do you think of that assessment, Angela?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I need you to unpack that. So how exactly are politicians capitalizing on the human emotion of envy?
DUBNER: I’ll give you an example. You see that guy coming across the border? He’s coming to take your job. Your job will go away if that guy comes in. Now, an economist would look at that argument and say, “Well, you’ve got it kind of backwards, actually. If you have more people to do lower-level jobs, then that creates — in many cases, if not all, a stronger economy that provides more opportunity to more people. And theoretically, you have advantages already from having lived here, spoken the language, et cetera. But: I think there are a lot of cases where politicians like to point out what another group has or does that you don’t have or get to do. And so I do think there’s a strong argument to be made here. I’m looking here from a book called Egalitarian Envy by Gonzalo Fernández de la Mora that says, “Contemporary people are subject to a massive supply of information through the mass media. Consequently, people can have opinions about the happiness of those that they have never met, or groups of people to whom they do not belong, and as a result of these feelings, they may envy.”
DUCKWORTH: Is there a bipartisan argument here? I’m struggling to think of how the Democrats are using envy as an engine to stir people up.
DUBNER: Well, here’s what Margaret Thatcher wrote about how envy works against a kind of strong society in the way that she saw it. She wrote, “I reject vehemently the politics of envy, the incitement of people to regard all success as if it were something discreditable, gained only by taking selfish advantage of others.” So this is making the argument that the left says that anybody who gets rich or makes a lot of money is doing so on the backs of other people, and that’s not fair. Margaret Thatcher went on to say: “I do not believe it is the character of the British people to begrudge a lion’s share to those who have genuinely played a lion’s part. They are ready to recognize that those who create wealth, and I mean not only material, but intellectual and spiritual wealth, enrich the whole nation.”
DUCKWORTH: I think what she’s saying is that you don’t have to feel envy when you see that other people are excelling.
DUBNER: And furthermore, when you do exhibit envy or proclaim envy, you are going against the fabric of what made the country strong. That’s her argument, at least. And you can find the roots of that in Churchill. Here’s something Churchill said at the House of Commons in October 1945: “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings. The inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.” Later he said, “Socialism is the philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy.” So that’s an indictment from what you might call the right of the envy practice by the left.
DUCKWORTH: I do think there are different interpretations of equity. And I’ve been having conversations with folks in education and in non-profit land who tell me that, for some, equity just means that there is not a lot of range in what is happening in society. And they would rather have everybody go down a peg if it came with everyone being closer together, than having this gap between the people at the top and the people at the bottom, even if the mean, the average, is higher. And I have to say, I viscerally have a response against that. I’m like, “Wait, what? I don’t want to have to go down a peg.” But I think it’s an interesting argument. Maybe one I have to think about more.
DUBNER: And then there are those who argue that you’ve got it backwards. Envy is actually a fantastic, positive source in society. That it can drive people to be ambitious. It can drive entrepreneurship. What do you make of that argument?
DUCKWORTH: There is a paper that came out in 2017 in Social Science and Medicine. The title is, “Is Envy Harmful to a Society’s Psychological Health and Well-Being? A Longitudinal Study of 18,000 Adults.” And this is by professors of behavioral science over at University of Warwick, England. And what this very ambitious study asks is: if you go all the way back to the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who, a century ago, warned that envy was, like, a modern-day social ill that might undermine our institutions — they wanted to ask the question empirically: is that true? And so what they did was they took 18,000 individuals. They looked at them over the years 2005, 2009, and 2013. So it’s a very large scale, but also a longitudinal study. I’m going to read you verbatim from their report. “First, the young are especially susceptible. Levels of envy fall as people grow older.”
DUBNER: Does that mean we just give up at a certain point?
DUCKWORTH: Well it may be, although the increase in positive characteristics over the course of adulthood, and the decrease of negative characteristics, it’s part of a broader pattern called the maturity principle, and we’ve talked about that before. So there are changes in people as they experience more of life that are generally positive. The second finding is that envy today is a powerful predictor of worse mental health and lower well-being in the future. And again, this is a longitudinal study, and one of the advantages is that it gives you a stronger claim on causality — that if I’m experiencing envy today, even controlling for everything else about me, you can predict that I’m going to feel worse and less happy in the future.
DUBNER: You’re saying that if one experiences a higher level of envy when one is younger, then one will have worse mental health outcomes as one grows older. That seems to be a causal relationship?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, the argument is that if having more envy today predicts being unhappier tomorrow, controlling for everything else, envy might be causal.
DUBNER: Although it could be that whatever is causing the high level of envy at an earlier age is what’s causing the problems and not so much the envy per se. Correct?
DUCKWORTH: That is so true, Stephen. So the one thing that the study cannot do is make causal claims based on experiments. Like, “Oh, I made people envy, and look, they got unhappy.” You know?
DUBNER: But to be fair, if academic psychologists did an experiment like that where they cause people to be envious — as you people sometimes do in a controlled experimental environment — I wouldn’t really buy that because that’s — it’s too distant from real life.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah you’re like, “In the lab, we made people feel envious by showing them pictures of Kim Kardashian, and on a scale of one to 10 —.” Yeah, that’s fair. And I think that’s why you need both.
DUBNER: So wait, did you finish? There was one more finding?
DUCKWORTH: This paper is so rich. So third — and I’m quoting again — “no evidence is found for the idea that envy acts as a useful motivator.” The authors go on to say that greater envy is associated with slower growth of psychological well-being in the future. So, you could again make a contra Bertrand Russell argument like, “Envy’s really a terrific impetus for us to get better ourselves.” And at least this paper is making the argument that, like, no. It doesn’t make you grow up faster.
DUBNER: I think we might need to go back to a definitional discussion of envy because envy is not the same as comparison, right? We can agree on that?
DUCKWORTH: I think it’s not exactly the same thing as comparison, but I do think it is an emotion that comes from a certain kind of comparison.
DUBNER: I’d like to know how you define envy or draw out answers about envy on your Seven Deadly Sin survey that you’re running on the No Stupid Questions website.
DUCKWORTH: Here are the four questions on the Seven Deadly Sins Scale that we use to index envy: making fun of others because I’m envious of them; acting unkindly because of jealousy; treating others poorly because they have things I want; putting down others to make myself feel better. This is not how envy is most often indexed because when people say, “I want to measure envy,” understandably, they focus on the experience of envy, the emotion of envy, whereas my scale is really talking about: what are the downstream actions that you might take as a result of that feeling?
DUBNER: You haven’t watched this TV show called “Physical: 100, ” have you?
DUCKWORTH: No, I have not. What is it?
DUBNER: So it’s a reality show from South Korea. It brings together 100 people from a variety of realms, many of them athletes but some not, and it wants to find out what is the ultimate type of physical body that can do the most diverse and amazing physical feats? The first task was everybody had to hang from this kind of grid that was above a pool of water. Imagine a horizontal landscape of squares basically, of these metal bars. And very quickly people realized that, “Oh, if I’m just going to hang on with my hands, I’m doing like a dead hang, that’s really hard.” So people would hoist themselves up and hang, like, under their armpits and legs and all kinds of contortions. And what was so interesting is, because it was reality TV and there was a camera on everyone and a microphone, you could see people’s thought process when they would notice someone else doing a strategy that they thought made sense, and then they would copy it. And so that was one version of comparison that led to better outcomes. And another was that some people would say, “Oh, my gosh, that person is just a dancer or a firefighter, not a world-class athlete like me, and look how strong and calm they look.” And so they began to level themselves up simply by having the comparison right physically in front of them. What’s the difference between that and what we’re talking about now, envy? Like, it’s a little bit surprising for me to hear that there’s no empirical evidence that envy can be a motivator.
DUCKWORTH: In this paper, it says that envy is not a predictor of later economic success. You know my mom, by the way, used to always tell me stories of like — I think this is literally one of them — like, “Oh, I was just reading in the Chinese newspaper about a 5-year-old who was somehow able to, like, raise the whole family by themselves because the parents got sick. And they were making dinner.”
DUBNER: “And Angela, you’re still throwing turkey sandwiches around the house. What’s your problem?”
DUCKWORTH: No exactly. And you’re not even 5. What’s wrong with you? And not that a certain ethnicity or certain cultural group does this necessarily to the exclusion of all other groups doing it, but there were lots of stories in our family about things that other kids could do that I think were supposed to motivate us to do better ourselves. In this study, when they say that envy is not a predictor of later economic success, I don’t think that you could interpret that to mean that it never does, because it could be that the kind of person who takes that information and gets really motivated is balanced out in the data by somebody who’s completely discouraged. And to me, the operative thing is this: it’s an inspiration if we see somebody who looks like us do something that we also think we might be able to do. It is a complete opposite effect when I see somebody who looks like me who does something that I can’t yet do, but I no longer, or I don’t feel like I can do that.
DUBNER: Do you think it’s true that the envy index is particularly high at a high school reunion?
DUCKWORTH: It’s funny, there is this paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which is the flagship journal of psychologists who study social-psychological phenomena — and that would include comparing yourself to others, the emotion of envy, et cetera. And this paper is entitled, “When Every Day Is a High School Reunion” — colon — “Social Media Comparisons and Self-Esteem.”
DUBNER: Bringing together our two favorite things: social media and high school reunions.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, well, I do think this happens. I mean, I’ve been to my own high school reunion. I’ve been to Jason’s high school reunion, and I think the idea is: how can you not make social comparisons?
DUBNER: Especially because the people who choose to go to reunions are a self-selecting group. You’re not finding the people who choose to not compare themselves to the others.
DUCKWORTH: What kind of person do you think shows up at their reunion? People who feel like they’re going to be able to lord their accomplishments over other people? Like, people who are doing really well? Or do you feel like it’s the opposite because, like, they don’t have anything better to do?
DUBNER: It’s not so much the lording-over component I was considering. It was more like, if I really don’t like where my life is right now, I am probably a little bit less inclined to go spend time with people I may have been close with a long time ago, who I am assuming are doing better than me. But I don’t know. That’s a total guess.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, have you been to any of your reunions?
DUBNER: I went to my first one last year. It was awesome.
DUCKWORTH: College? High school? Say more.
DUBNER: High school. It was just so much fun. There was nothing remarkable or special about it that anyone listening here couldn’t imagine or hasn’t experienced themselves. But because I hadn’t been to any, and I’d been in a little bit of touch with just a handful of people, it was just an overwhelmingly emotional experience for me, mostly in the positive sense. I grew up in a rural place and went to a very small school. So my graduating class was I think 54, something like that.
DUCKWORTH: And might I ask what year it is that you graduated from high school? I’m sure it’s on Wikipedia anyway.
DUBNER: My original class was the class of 1981, but then I ended up getting out a year early because I was ready to go, so I kind of folded in my last two years of high school. Interestingly though, the reunion that I was invited to and went to was the class that I didn’t actually graduate with, now that I think about it.
DUCKWORTH: It was your original class, right?
DUBNER: The one that I actually graduated with was a class that I hadn’t really spent that much time with. They were the kids who were a year older, but then I ended up walking with them. So my real class, that was the reunion I went to. I mean, it was great to see individual people. Some of them had done things that were just really interesting or inspiring or weird or whatnot. There was plenty of sad stuff to talk about. There were deaths, illness, et cetera. But for me, and this is just my very selfish interpretation, it was an amazing experience to go back to this rural place where I had come from a long time ago, and just take it all in again. It’s like Proust and a carton of madeleines. One sense after the other were flooding at me, just driving past houses, fields, farms, the place where that happened. Again, I don’t mean to minimize the upside of the interaction with the other people. That was really interesting. It was fun, it was exciting. But for me at least, it was almost a meditative reassessment of: “This is the place where I came from, and I don’t think about it that often, and now that I’m getting to see it, hear it, smell it, and think about it a lot, it just brought me to a lot of deep places,” cognitively and emotionally. Not all good, some bad, but it’s something I would recommend to anyone who’s thinking you don’t want to go to the reunion per se, maybe you really didn’t like the people or whatnot, but just giving your mind an opportunity to re-engage with that part of yourself from a long time ago, I think is an amazing kind of therapeutic activity.
DUCKWORTH: In this tapestry that you’re weaving of your high school reunion, I don’t hear almost any thread about social comparison, upward or downward. It doesn’t sound like you went back and you’re comparing yourself in any way to these people you haven’t seen for a lifetime. Is that right?
DUBNER: I mean, that’s a complicated question. I became a little bit well-known for a kid from Duanesburg.
DUCKWORTH: I mean, that’s why I was asking it. Like, “Oh, Dubner. He’s the most successful person in our high school class.”
DUBNER: Well, often people would say things that were, you know, complimentary, like, “Nice to see you doing this and that.” And I don’t like that.
DUCKWORTH: It made you uncomfortable, right?
DUBNER: It makes me uncomfortable. Like, there was this one guy who was a very close friend of mine when I was younger. We spent a lot of time together, and he was always just really smart and also really mechanical. And his business has been basically running a high-end machine shop. He makes stuff that people need, often the military and so on. And he was saying, like, “You went off and you did this famous-seeming stuff, and I’m just doing this.” And I’m thinking, like, “Yeah, but he actually does something useful. And I just sit here and talk to people.” And I don’t want to say it made me feel worse about myself, but it didn’t make me feel better. So maybe I’m just warped in that way. But that’s one example of my social comparison.
DUCKWORTH: I actually think that reunions have a kind of funny, almost deliberate counter to the spontaneous comparison that you think would happen. I feel like people are so generous at reunions. It’s like, “Oh, I’m so happy for you. You look great. Your kids are gorgeous. Oh, let me see another picture.” Right? Like, I don’t see any envy in these reunions.
DUBNER: That is exactly what I encountered, but I was reluctant to say that because I have an N of exactly one.
DUCKWORTH: But now it’s two because I’m — like, I’m with you.
DUBNER: But also, you and I are not very representative samples cause we’re both pretty happy about everything. And we’re both big optimists. So of course we’re going to have fun at our high school reunion.
DUCKWORTH: And also you could argue that we came back to our high school reunions and we didn’t have our tail between our legs because, you know, we’ve achieved some things anyway.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions, Angela digs into the research on social media — and Stephen offers a counterpoint.
DUBNER: Go, envy.
DUCKWORTH: I don’t want to be on Team Envy, but I do have to concede a point.
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Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about envy, and their discussion of a paper called “When Every Day Is a High School Reunion: Social Media Comparisons and Self-Esteem” from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
DUCKWORTH: What this paper asks is: are social comparisons made through social media so bad? As I said before, it’s a debate, and there are scholars on both sides. And, you know, this is a relatively recent paper. And what these scholars say is that, “Wow, it’s shocking how little is known.” And they tried to actually attack this question by using a variety of techniques. You know, there’s some studies that are experimental, and then there are studies that are called “experience sampling studies,” where you have people fill out surveys continuously over, I think in this case, two weeks. And so what they collectively say is that — and I want to quote the authors — “These studies are the first to demonstrate that the more frequent upward comparisons that individuals experience while using social media are associated with more negative outcomes for the self, including worse mood, lower self-esteem, and decreased life satisfaction.” The idea is that particularly in the medium of social media, you make comparisons. Those comparisons are not symmetric. It’s not like you scroll through your social media, and you’re like, “Oh, I’m better than that person. Oh, worse than that one. Better, worse, worse, better, better” — like, that it adds up to 50-50. We spontaneously tend to scroll through social media and make upward comparisons, meaning we’re looking up to someone else, which means that we’re on the downside. The other important facet of this is that if you are somebody who is low in self-esteem, so you’re already feeling insecure about yourself, then you are the person who’s going to be making the most extreme upward comparisons, and that is going to lead to even lower self-esteem and then just generally being unhappy. I probably have confirmation bias because I do have these two daughters at home who say that they are so much happier when they don’t have Instagram or the other social media platforms on their phones. And I’ve seen them at points in their lives where, like, I didn’t think things were going so well, like, almost compulsively scrolling through these images. So I have some confirmation bias here, but I’m persuaded by this article.
DUBNER: I can see why. Though, you mentioned it’s controversial, that there are many people who argue about the detriments of social media. What do we know about upsides?
DUCKWORTH: There’s an op-ed in The New York Times by Larry Steinberg, who is an adolescent psychologist without parallel. I respect him a lot.
DUBNER: How did he become a psychologist in his adolescence? That’s a remarkable accomplishment.
DUCKWORTH: A psychologist who studies adolescents, Larry Steinberg —.
DUBNER: Thank you for the clarification.
DUCKWORTH: In the op-ed, he really says, “Look, the evidence that social media is all that toxic is quite weak.” And you know, he makes an argument on the other side. Recently we were having an email exchange about this very topic because, as you know, I’m like, very worried about social media and teenagers. And he sent me this Pew survey, a national survey of teens, over a thousand of them. And I think the most relevant finding is about the percentage of teens who say that it’s negative. But they asked it two ways. They asked it about you, yourself, personally. But also: what about other teenagers your age? You know, is it positive? Is it negative? Is it neither? And here you get very different answers. When reflecting on themselves personally, these teenagers, who are ages 13 to 17, they overwhelmingly say it’s more positive than negative. So 32 percent of teens are like, “Oh, for me personally, it’s positive.” And only 9 percent say it’s negative. And then everybody else, 59 percent, are like, undecided or it’s in the middle. But then when you ask the same teenagers, like, what about other teenagers? Then the numbers actually flip. They’re not exactly inverses, but now you have 24 percent saying it’s mostly positive, but you actually have more teenagers, 32 percent — not 9 percent — saying it’s mostly negative. So I don’t know exactly what’s going on there really. Maybe they’re not able to understand that they’re being also afflicted or — you can have a lot of different interpretations.
DUBNER: Including the fact that there’s so much media about how negative social media is that people assume it is, so that kids who say, “My experience with it is pretty positive. But yeah, it must be pretty bad for everyone else.”
DUCKWORTH: Parents are the same way. They’ll say, “Gosh, American K-12 education is in the toilet.”
DUBNER: “But my teachers and my school — fantastic.”
DUCKWORTH: Everything’s great. And I think you can make the argument because you have test scores and other things, like, very often, those parents are wrong about their own school.
DUBNER: Wait, they’re wrong in which direction? That they’re over-praising them or under-praising them?
DUCKWORTH: That they’re overly optimistic about their own school. They’re like, “Oh, my kid’s school is great, but everyone else’s school is terrible.” But, actually, if you look at their school, it may not be great.
DUBNER: Well, it depends what you’re looking for in a school. Like, they haven’t lost or broken my kid yet. So that’s a victory.
DUCKWORTH: Yes. Depends on what you’re evaluating these things on.
DUBNER: That’s the key to life, Angela. You have to set your standards appropriately. If you expect too much out of life, you’re bound to be disappointed.
DUCKWORTH: So I hear.
DUBNER: One commonality, I think, of all our discussions on these so-called seven deadly sins is that there is a spectrum. It can have negative consequences for sure, but what about the positive consequences? So I think about social norming; if you can change the way that most people in a society think about a particular behavior — like, look at smoking. Smoking has been curtailed by a lot of different methods. Taxes, prices, public service announcements, da da da, and social norming has been a big part of it. You can look at other pro-social things like, I don’t know, seatbelt wearing. It took a long time, but now it’s become a standard thing. Do you know the story of — I think Robert Cialdini was involved in this research about trying to learn what would get people in California to use less electricity at home. Do you remember this famous study?
DUCKWORTH: Is this Opower?
DUBNER: Yeah, I think it is this company called Opower. And what I love about this story is that Cialdini and the others were smart enough to understand that there’s a difference between what we say we’ll respond to and what we actually respond to. So here’s what happened. They start with a survey. They say: “How important are the following factors in your decision to conserve energy? No. 1: It’ll save you money. No. 2: It’ll protect the environment. No. 3: It benefits society. And No. 4: a lot of other people are trying to do it.” So when you look at the results of that survey, the most common answer was, “I would use less energy because it protects the environment.” Then, “It benefits society.” Then, “It saves money.” And last is, “A lot of other people are trying to do it.” So that’s what people say. And now the beauty part is they measure what people actually do by an experiment where, if I recall correctly, they went around to these different homes and they hung little door placards with different messages on them that matched the phone survey. So one would say, like, “Protect the environment by conserving energy.” Another would say, “Save money by conserving energy.” And the other would say, “Join your neighbors in conserving energy.” And as it turns out, the one that people said they would not respond to at all, which is that a lot of other people are doing it, was the number-one motivator. In other words, if you got a sign on your door that said: “Hey, everybody in your neighborhood is trying to use less energy,” that was the thing that made people use the least. So when I think of that story, I think, Wow, this is an amazingly smart way to think about the application of social norming and the way to think about how all these emotions are on a spectrum. And if we can get away from being binary, thinking that envy is bad, or social comparison is bad, then I think there’s real progress to be made.
DUCKWORTH: Well, Opower, this company, sends hard copy letters to people in a neighborhood, and the letters don’t just say, like, “Hey, other people in your neighborhood are trying to conserve energy.” They give you a bar chart. It’s like, “Here’s your house.” And talk about envy. It’s like, “Oh, and here are your neighbors.” But also, you don’t want someone to say like, “Oh, my gosh. I should start using more energy because everybody else is.”
DUBNER: Exactly. Although any incentive can backfire, theoretically. You could imagine that somebody gets this letter that says, “You’re using 20 percent more energy than your neighbor,” and you think, Yeah. That means that I’m having more parties —.
DUCKWORTH: Or you could have the what-the-hell effect when people, violate a rule, and they’re like, “What the hell?” So you could imagine that. But this strategy of sending out letters — where you could argue the engine is some form of envy, certainly it’s social comparison — this has been studied extensively by lots of economists that I really respect and admire, and the data are so rich because the company serves so many neighborhoods in America. And I think it’s unequivocal that it works. So look, that’s a really clear case for envy for good.
DUBNER: Go, envy.
DUCKWORTH: I don’t want to be on Team Envy. but I do have to concede a point.
DUBNER: I would love to hear from listeners something that you used to be envious about but are not any longer, and I want to know how you got over it. Put this in the form of a voice memo, use your phone to record it, do it in a quiet place, and send the file to us at NSQ@Freakonomics.com. Maybe we will play it on a future show. Angela, my callout to listeners was actually inspired by you. I really admire how open you are when you are envious of someone. I think that’s a great trait. Like, there are many academics that you just say, “I love them. I think they’re amazing,” but you don’t express envy. But then there are a few that you say, “I think they’re great, and also, I wish I were more like them.” So I’m curious, when you have that feeling, does that lead to positive things or negative things, ultimately?
DUCKWORTH: You know, just the other day — oh my gosh, I think it may have been yesterday — I was talking to Katy Milkman, our good friend.
DUBNER: You’re not envious of her. You’re admiring of her.
DUCKWORTH: This is the thing. I said to her, “Katy, you are so ambitious.” And then I went on to say — and I really did mean this as the highest compliment — I’m like, “You just do the most bold and crazy things. Like, let’s do an experiment with over 3 million people, and like, it’s nationwide. And then like, we’re going to raise millions of dollars to do it, and then we’ll get the best scientist to do it. And then we’re going to publish it in the very tippy-top journals.” It’s just so bold. I marvel.
DUBNER: And were your eyes turning green with envy?
DUCKWORTH: I don’t feel like that would describe how I felt at the moment. It really was just like, awe. I guess there was also a little element of like, “Oh, my gosh, you want to hang out with me for three hours and work on this paper? You know, I’m not a saint. I won’t say that I’m never envious of Katy. I am sometimes. But I think the reason why I don’t feel, like, pea green, side-glancing, negative, “Oh, I hope something bad happens to you” feeling, is probably for two reasons. One is, you know, I was just talking about how people with low self-esteem are the ones who make frequent and extreme upward comparisons on social media. I do not have a self-esteem problem. I’m, like, feeling pretty good about Angela Duckworth. I have a very — maybe too healthy sense of self-esteem. I think the other thing is that envy, as an emotion which really narrows your focus to some feature of social comparison that you feel inferior on — one of the antidotes to that is just having a broader perspective on your worth in the world. So not only do I have high self-esteem — and I’m not saying this in a way to brag — but also I think my self-esteem has some breadth to it. Like, “Why do you feel so good about yourself, Angela? Is it because you’re a productive academic?” And I would say, “Well, let me tell you. In addition to that, I feel really good about friendships. I feel super loved by my husband. Oh my gosh. I don’t know if it’s possible for someone to love anyone else as much as Jason loves me. I feel good about my relationships with my daughters. I feel like I’m a pretty decent neighbor.” So whether I’m right or wrong, I feel like this broad but also deep sense of, hey, I’m a worthwhile person, is, in a way, a counter to what leaves you vulnerable to those feelings of envy.
DUBNER: Angela, I’ve never in my life felt envious toward you until now. Now you’ve just told me all the ways in which your life is plainly superior to mine on every dimension. All I can say is, screw off, Angela. I thought we were pretty good friends. And now you’ve driven me down the road. But, you know, you are so good at everything that you’re going to find a way for me to feel un-envious about you somehow.
DUCKWORTH: And then you can feel envious about that.
DUBNER: And I shall.
This episode of No Stupid Questions was produced by me, Katherine Moncure, with our production associate, Lyric Bowditch. And now, here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation.
Early in the conversation, Angela says that the year Stephen graduated from high school must be on Wikipedia. But at the time this episode was published, it was not.
Later, Stephen says that Robert Cialdini’s landmark electricity study was done with the company Opower. Opower, which makes energy efficiency software, did not exist when Cialdini’s research was published. In fact, Opower’s founders were inspired to start the company by Cialdini’s work.
That’s it for the fact-check.
Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some of your thoughts about last week’s episode on wrath:
Claire DESMIT: Hi, Stephen and Angela. This is Claire. I am a graphic designer and an artist, and I remember specifically one time back in high school I was working on a drawing that was due the next day, obviously the night before. And this drawing was just turning out like crap, like really bad. And I got so angry and frustrated with myself that I just tore this thing to shreds and had to start all over. But it actually ended up helping me because I was going through this creative block in my head, it actually ended up making a much better piece that I was happy with. And this has happened a few times. Like I have punched holes through canvases and had to restart. So yeah, who knew? Anger can sometimes help.
Sarah DURAND: Hi, Stephen and Angela. This is Sarah from Kentucky. I’m a mom of three, and when my kids were younger I would stop their tantrums by asking them to solve a math problem. Not only did it cause pause, because it’s weird when you’re yelling at someone and they ask you to solve eight plus seven, but they calmed down. Unfortunately, they eventually caught on and it doesn’t still work now that they’re angry teenagers, but it is a tool I still use to control my own emotions. If I am angry or about to cry, I do long division in my head because it’s nearly impossible to feel anything while doing long division.
Yuka TAKAO: Hi Angela and Stephen. My name’s Yuka. I’m from Japan, but currently living in Australia. Concerning anger, I think culturally speaking, I am conditioned not to express anger so I always try to suppress it or somehow do the reappraisal. However, recently I went to a feminist event in Sydney where at the end of the talk we were all requested to shout, “F**k the patriarchy!” And that felt really, really good. I felt the sense of unity among those who felt anger and the fact that I was able to feel anger and savor it and express it, it was a liberating experience.
That was, respectively: Claire DeSmit, Sarah Durand, and Yuka Takao. Thanks so much to them and to everyone who sent us their thoughts. And remember, we’d still love to hear about something you used to be envious about, and how you got over it. Send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. Let us know your name and whether you’d like to remain anonymous. You might hear your voice on the show!
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Is the gambling industry driven by greed?
DUCKWORTH: I love it when you lapse into the James Bond villain voice.
DUBNER: No, that was slightly different. That was more like a learned German professor, if you couldn’t tell.
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.
* * *
No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne, with help from Jeremy Johnston. We had research help from Joseph Fridman and Dan Moritz-Rabson. Our executive team is Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
DUBNER: He must have bribed the boss because he’s a total idiot. And he only showers every fourth day.
- Winston Churchill, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
- Robert Cialdini, professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University.
- Gonzalo Fernández de la Mora, Spanish essayist and politician.
- Immanuel Kant, 18th-century German philosopher.
- Katy Milkman, professor of operations, information, and decisions at the University of Pennsylvania.
- Marcel Proust, 19th- 20th-century French novelist, literary critic, and essayist.
- Bertrand Russell, 19th- 20th-century British mathematician, philosopher, logician, and public intellectual.
- Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Temple University.
- Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
- Seven Deadly Sins Survey, by No Stupid Questions (2023).
- “Connection, Creativity, and Drama: Teen Life on Social Media in 2022,” by Monica Anderson, Emily A. Vogels, Andrew Perrin, and Lee Rainie (Pew Research Center, 2022).
- “When Every Day Is a High School Reunion: Social Media Comparisons and Self-Esteem,” by Claire Midgley, Sabrina Thai, Penelope Lockwood, Chloe Kovacheff, and Elizabeth Page-Gould (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2021).
- “Does Instagram Harm Girls? No One Actually Knows,” by Laurence Steinberg (The New York Times, 2021).
- “Patterns of Cumulative Continuity and Maturity in Personality and Well-Being: Evidence From a Large Longitudinal Sample of Adults,” by Frank D. Mann, Colin G. DeYoung, and Robert F. Krueger (Personality and Individual Differences, 2021).
- “Is Envy Harmful to a Society’s Psychological Health and Wellbeing? A Longitudinal Study of 18,000 Adults,” by Redzo Mujcic and Andrew J. Oswald (Social Science & Medicine, 2018).
- “Anti-Smoking Social Norms Are Associated With Increased Cessation Behaviours Among Lower and Higher Socioeconomic Status Smokers: A Population-Based Cohort Study,” by Danielle A. J. M. Schoenaker, Emily Brennan, Melanie A. Wakefield, and Sarah J. Durkin (PLoS One, 2018).
- “The Psychology of Envy and Social Justice,” by the Academy of Ideas (2017).
- “‘Socialism is the philosophy of failure…’ – Winston Churchill,” by The Churchill Project (2015).
- “A Little Guilt, a Lot of Energy Savings,” by Mark Joseph Stern (Slate, 2013).
- “OPOWER: Increasing Energy Efficiency Through Normative Influence,” by Amy J.C. Cuddy, Kyle Todd Doherty and Maarten W. Bos (Harvard Business School Case Collection, 2010).
- “The Constructive, Destructive, and Reconstructive Power of Social Norms,” by P. Wesley Schultz, Jessica M. Nolan, Robert Cialdini, Noah J. Goldstein, and Vladas Griskevicius (Psychological Science, 2007).
- Egalitarian Envy: The Political Foundations of Social Justice, by Gonzalo Fernández de la Mora (1987).
- “Britain Can Win,” by Margaret Thatcher (News of the World, 1974).