Shall We Get Rid of Consumer Envy? When Consumer Envy Can Be Objectified and Destroyed

By: Primidya K. Miranda Soesilo, S.E., M.Sc., Ph.D.

How many times in our lives, if we want to admit, that we feel envious of others? When your friend just purchased an Hermes handbag and flaunted it to everyone, you may feel a bit envious. When your other friend posted photos of her recent vacation to one of the most expensive spots Cayo Espanto in Belize on Facebook, you may hesitantly click the like button as you grow some envious feeling. When your neighbor shows off his new sport car by driving around the neighborhood, you may wave at them and try your best to look happy for him. At least once in their lifetime (which is much less likely only once), people experience envy in different forms. This is because people compare themselves to others on day-to-day basis – either because they are forced to do so, or they choose to do so. This social comparison is reinforced as consumers see others to have possessions they are longing to have and thus, they develop the desire to have what the others have, known as ‘keeping-up with Joneses’ effect. In the realm of consumer behavior, the tendency to compare with better-off others is evident by the growing materialism and conspicuous consumption by consumers.

While comparison can be both downward and upward, upward social comparison (i.e. comparing to the more advantaged others) is the most frequent kind that occurs. This is where envy – as an emotion that yields from an upward social comparison – mostly comes in. But of course, no one wants to admit that he or she is envious of others because it may be seen as an indicator that the he or she is lacking of resources and having less power over others. In 1930, Russel stated that envy is universal and deep-seated human passion. Even Aristotle wrote that “…envy is a disturbing pain excited by the prosperity of others, of people who are like us or equal with us, that makes us take steps to stop our neighbor having goods as envious man seeks to hurt the other”. This is also another reason why being envious is not something to be proud of while it is common feeling in most cultures, regardless of the individual’s maturity level.

Marketers know best how to persuade consumers to purchase their offerings by taking advantage of this feeling and using it heavily in ads to motivate consumers to acquire their products. And yes, research shows how envy is linked to spontaneous and impulsive purchase as well as willingness to pay higher price for the envied product. One might think: Well then, envy is good for business, isn’t it? Of course, envy may be good for business in some aspects. In fact, envy may be good for motivation in general as envy can be distinguished into benign and malicious envy. When the envy is benign, then the envious individual may seek rational ways to push up and improve his/her position; however, when the envy is malicious, it seeks to pull down the envied others. Not only that, malicious envy tends to lead individuals to do unthinkable actions. In the consumption context, it can be manifested in irrational decision making and spending that drives consumers to fall into huge personal debt. This is what happens in a society where conspicuous consumption, materialism, and credit card purchase become the norm. This may explain why U.S. household debt has been growing by 11% in the past decade, according to the “2016 American Household Credit Card Debt Study”. With the average American household has $132,529 in debt and $1,300 a year in interest, it is time to take action. While it is not always attributed to lifestyle creep, since part of it is due to the rising medical and housing costs, this trend may be a warning sign that consumers need to be ‘trained’ to spend their money rationally, wisely and carefully. Thus, while consumer envy may have the bright side to marketers, eventually it leads to the demise of spending power by the dark side of it. The next question is, can consumers be directed to spend rationally and wisely by controlling the envy emotion? Can envy be regulated? Even further, can it be destroyed? Will the destruction of envy lead to less greedy behavior and indulgent or hedonic behavior?

In 2014, I conducted a series of studies as my doctoral dissertation to answer these questions. Through three experiments within 18 months of data collection, we successfully showed that consumer envy could actually be destroyed and the destruction of it led to better behavior of the consumers. The three experiments also showed that envy as a negative emotion can be objectified (i.e. transferred into an object to be destroyed). The experiments assigned consumers into two groups: one group was manipulated in a way so that they felt envious of others while another group was used as control group in which they felt no envious feelings of others. The manipulation was masked by telling consumers that the study was all about examining handwriting. The experimental group (i.e. group that was intended to feel envious) was presented a scenario or situation that elicited envy feeling. They were then asked to write their feelings on a piece of paper, long enough to allow the emotion to be felt. This method has been proven in psychological research to be valid enough in emotion elicitation. Afterwards, half of consumers of each group were told to destroy the paper using various tools and half were told to keep the written paper and set it aside. They were then asked to fill questionnaires containing some measures of the dependent variables. The indulgent behavior was measured by asking questions of how much the consumers would like to spend on a pre-determined indulgent product (e.g. DVD/CD, wristwatches, etc.) and a functional product (e.g. school supply products). The greedy behavior was measured using a real behavior. As consumers walked out of the experiment room, they were told to take some souvenirs as many as they like. The field data staff then recorded how many souvenirs each consumer took by noting it on the back of the questionnaire submitted to the staff.

Through these experiments, it is revealed that consumers can objectify the feeling of envy by transferring the emotion to a piece of paper as confirmed by the result that demonstrated how destroying or keeping a paper on which participants wrote their feeling could result in subsequent different behaviors. Consumers who feel envious demonstrate more acquisitive or greedier behavior than those who do not feel envious unless physical destruction of the object occurs, in which case fewer gifts are taken. Thus, destroying the paper seems to reduce whatever feelings are attached to it. Moreover, the result shows that a certain way of physically destroying the object that represents the feeling of envy is found to be more effective in reducing preference for indulgence products. As we expected, consumers who use a tool to more effectively destroy the object that represents the feelings of envy (cutting the paper with scissors) exhibit less preference for indulgence than those who do not use a tool (hand tearing the paper). When consumers are envious, they tend to spend more on indulgent products than when they destroy the feeling. Consumers who cut the paper on which they wrote their envy feeling indicate that they would spend the least money on indulgence products.

Findings of this research set a first stepping stone to understand consumer regulation of envy feeling and the positive impact of it in helping consumers to be wiser in their spending. Continuous exposure to enormous marketing communications may lead consumers to continuously commit in never ending social comparisons and allow feeling of envy to arise. While this may be good for marketers and business, this is short-lived. In the long run, this may bring trouble to the economy in general. For affluent consumers, the desire to acquire products may not adversely impact their financial situations. However, for the less-fortunate ones, the envy-led desires may destruct their financial and psychologically, have adverse impact. The impact might be worse when these less-fortunate consumers do not do that well in regulating their envy feeling. Therefore, in the name of consumer welfare, consumers should be made aware of the consequences of envy, as well as be exposed to different ways to reduce it. Through these experiments, these different ways were proven to be effective enough.

Primidya K. Miranda Soesilo, S.E., M.Sc., Ph.D. is currently the Head of Business Management and Marketing and Faculty Member in  Binus Business School International Undergraduate Program. Further about her profile can be accessed here.

(Original Paper: Soesilo, Primidya KM., & Morrin, Maureen. “No Longer Green With Envy: Objectifying and Destroying Negative Emotions”. Revise and resubmit to Journal of Consumer Affairs)

Primidya K. Miranda Soesilo, S.E., M.Sc., Ph.D.