People Can Detect Envy, but Only in Other People They Know

Ever get the feeling that other people become jealous when something good happens to you? It’s exceptionally hard to know or sure, because most people aren’t open about being envious.

As far as the seven deadly sins go, envy is one that can be very quiet. Most people conceal any feelings of envy that arise, so it’s an emotion that tends to play out below the surface.

On the other hand, it would be helpful to be able to detect feelings of envy in others. That’s because envious people can present a social threat, as a team of researchers point out in their recent paper, Accuracy and Bias in the Social Perception of Envy.

So the researchers decided to test how good people really are at picking up on envy in others. They did so by first pairing up 436 people who didn’t know each other and having them compete with each other.

Each person rated their own feelings of envy and guessed how envious their partner was feeling as well. In the end, people weren’t significantly better than chance at guessing their partner’s feelings of envy toward them. In other words, at least among people who don’t know each other, envy seems to be a difficult emotion to accurately identify.

Next, the researchers paired up 502 people who did know each other. In this case, they asked the acquaintances to rate each other’s dispositional envy – that is, their tendency to experience envy more frequently and more strongly.

Here, people were significantly better than chance with their guesses. That suggests that, even if people can’t pick up on feelings of envy in unfamiliar people, they are able to guess which of the people they know are more inclined to be envious in general.

The researchers argue that this skill might be helpful if being envied represents a threat to one’s status. That is, we may not be very good at guessing whether a random person is feeling envy in a given moment, but we’re a bit better at knowing which of our acquaintances are likely to become jealous of us, so that we can watch out for them!