How envy and being envied shape social hierarchies

Jens Lange, Jan Crusius

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterScientific


Humans have a strong tendency to form social hierarchies (Magee and Galinsky 2008). They do so quickly and spontaneously. Even when contextual factors minimize the potential for hierarchical structures, they are hardly ever completely absent. This preference for hierarchical organization partly stems from the fact that being at the top of a hierarchy has important advantages. For instance, higher-ranked persons have access to valuable resources, better health, or power over others (e.g., Fournier 2020; Sapolsky 2005; Von Rueden, Gurven, and Kaplan 2011). Consequently, people are highly vigilant about their social rank. They continuously strive for higher social rank (Anderson, Hildreth, and Howland 2015) and even when they have a high position, their desire to stay at the top remains almost insatiable (Anderson, Hildreth, and Sharps 2020). If humans have a fundamental need for social rank, it follows that humans should be equipped with a set of strong psychological tools allowing them to deal with changes in their position in the hierarchy (Pettit et al. 2016; Sivanathan, Pillutla, and Murnighan 2008). Rising in the hierarchy elicits reactions aimed to reinforce the current course of action, whereas threats to one’s position elicit reactions aimed to prevent losing one’s rank. Among these strong reactions are emotions. That is, people react emotionally to rank improvements and rank threats, eliciting behaviors aimed to communicate rank improvements to others or averting potentially detrimental consequences of rank threats. Emotions therefore contribute to the regulation of social hierarchies (Steckler and Tracy 2014). One emotion that is at the center of these dynamics, we argue, is envy.
We propose that envy regulates social hierarchies in two ways. First, higher-ranked persons’ successes elicit envy in lower-ranked persons. Second, lower-rank persons’ envy in turn elicits reactions in higher-ranked persons. Envying and being envied thus occur in a dynamic relationship. To unravel the complexities of this dynamic, we argue in favor of considering the different ways in which social hierarchies form, and how emotions are multifaceted experiences. We review evidence for a broad framework that considers these points.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe moral psychology of envy
EditorsSara Protasi
PublisherRowman & Littlefield
ISBN (Print)9781538160060
Publication statusPublished - 2022


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