Social Comparative Emotions

Social  comparative  emotions  are  elicited  when there  is  a  reflection  and  comparison  of  one’s  personal  attributes  with  an  individual  or  group  of others  who  may  pose  a  threat  to  the  self.  Social comparative  emotions  are  evoked  when  there appears to be large a discrepancy between the self and another, in domains that are important and valued by the individual. Social comparative emotions such  as  jealousy  and  envy  are  developmental  in nature and cognitively complex. Jealousy and envy are grouped with emotions of guilt and shame as problematic negative self-conscious emotions since these emotions arise from comparisons with a standard in which the individual comes up short and is left in a state of wanting, each emotion involves a threat to the self, and all emotions are fundamentally  interpersonal  (with  jealousy  and  envy  being explicitly  interpersonal).  Jealousy  and  envy  are inherent  emotions  in  sport  and  exercise  contexts that are laden with performance accomplishments, competition and cooperation, and physical appearance and function comparisons.

Characteristics of Envy and Jealousy

The  distinction  between  the  emotions  of  jealousy and envy has been blurred and confounded, in part since given the similar characterizations involving social comparison processes and an innate motivation  to  maintain  positive  self-evaluations.  Targets of envy and jealousy tend to be individuals who are perceived to be similar to the individual on attributes such as sex, age, social class, sport position, or  ability  (e.g.,  a  quarterback  might  feel  envious of  another  team’s  quarterback).  Given  that  feelings of envy and jealousy arise when a comparison is made in a domain that is important to the self, individuals  who  place  importance  on  perceptions of  physical  appearance  and  performance  (arguably most exercisers and athletes) may be prone to heightened envy and jealousy emotions.


Jealousy  is  experienced  when  the  individual already possesses a desired tangible object or attribute  yet  feels  threatened  that  he  or  she  may  lose this possession to another individual. Specifically, jealousy  results  when  the  superiority  of  one  person  threatens  the  self-worth  of  another  person and  diminishes  the  individual’s  status.  The  threat involves  a  perceived  loss  of  a  relationship  to a  rival.  For  example,  a  soccer  player  who  has  a strong rapport and friendship with the head coach may  experience  jealousy  when  another  teammate receives  praise  or  extra  attention  after  making  a successful play. Jealousy may also be experienced as a fitness partner continues to improve while the other  partner  does  not—the  inferior  partner  may fear the loss of the partnership to an individual of equal  or  superior  fitness  qualities.  Affective  components  of  jealousy  include  fear  of  loss,  distrust, anger  over  betrayal,  and  uncertainty  about  the circumstances.


Envy is experienced when an individual wishes he  or  she  possessed  the  objects  or  personal  attributes  of  another  that  the  individual  himself  or herself  lacks.  Envy  is  a  negative  emotion  that  is characterized  by  feelings  of  inferiority,  hostility, and resentment. Generally categorized as an undesirable emotion, envy is associated with detrimental behaviors such as diminishing the envied person’s advantage or feeling pleased when the envied person suffers or loses their advantage (e.g., when an envied  fitness  partner  or  teammate  gets  injured and loses some strength or performance).

There  are  two  distinctions  in  the  semantics  of envious  experiences.  Benign  envy  is  described  as longing  for  or  a  coveting  of  what  another  possesses but lacking feelings of hostility. This type of envy  results  from  an  upward  comparison  where an individual perceives himself or herself as inferior  to  another  with  regard  to  a  possession  or attribute  but  without  a  sense  of  injustice  in  the envied  individual’s  superiority.  This  type  of  envy places the emphasis on the possession rather than the individual and consists of an appreciation and admiration of a possession—for example, a golfer who  compares  herself  to  a  Ladies  Professional Golf  Association  (LPGA)  player  and  is  envious  of  the  professional  athlete’s  putting  skill. Since  benign  envy  is  not  associated  with  hostile feelings,  it  is  generally  admitted  more  openly and  honestly.  Benign  envy  can  be  a  motivating force  to  achieve  the  envied  target;  however,  this depends  on  an  individual  perceiving  behavioral control  (i.e.,  he  or  she  believes  that  the  goal  is within reach).

In  contrast,  malicious  envy  is  described  as  an unjust feeling and desire for the envied individual to  lack  a  desired  trait.  Malicious  envy  can  manifest  itself  as  others’  perceived  superiority  in  certain  dispositional  attributes  such  as  intelligence, athletic  ability,  and  physical  attributes  that  may cause  feelings  of  injustice  for  the  inherent  nature of  (i.e.,  not  being  born  with)  these  traits.  For example, competitors may envy a lean and petite gymnast who they believe spends less time practicing  due  to  her  ideal  sport-specific  body  type  and feel  ill  will  toward  her  (e.g.,  hoping  the  gymnast gains weight). Malicious envy places emphasis on the  person  being  envied,  rather  than  the  possession.  Due  to  social  stigma  associated  with  these feelings  of  malicious  envy,  it  is  highly  unlikely  to be openly admitted or discussed. This type of envy has  been  linked  with  predisposing  individuals  to feel pleasure at the downfall of the envied person, an emotion termed schadenfreude. Therefore, envy can  manifest  itself  in  various  degrees  of  severity, ranging  from  resentment  of  another’s  successes, lessening  importance  of  personal  goals  to  diminish  other’s  advantage,  to  pleasure  in  watching  an envied other fail.

Psychological and Behavioral Outcomes

A high disposition to experience envy and jealousy has been associated with lower self-esteem, anger, irritability,  anxiety,  obsessive–compulsive  tendencies,  neuroticism,  and  depression.  Furthermore, characteristics of envy, such as hostility and resentment,  have  been  reliably  linked  with  increased blood pressure (BP), physiological stress response, and cardiovascular disease.


  1. Kowalski, R. M., & Leary, M. R. (Eds.). (1999). The social psychology of emotional and behavioural problems: Interfaces of social and clinical psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  2. Parrott, W. G., & Smith, R. H. (1993). Distinguishing the experiences of envy and jealousy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 906–920.
  3. Salovey, P. (Eds.). (1991). The psychology of jealousy and envy. New York: Guilford Press.
  4. Smith, R. H., & Kim, S. H. (2007). Comprehending envy. Psychological Bulletin, 133, 46–64.

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