AMS Review

, Volume 1, Issue 3–4, pp 117–134 | Cite as

Benign envy

  • Russell BelkEmail author


Envy has long been held to be a harmful emotion involving the desire to deprive others of the qualities or possessions that they possess and we covet. When the various religious injunctions against such malicious envy were conceived, the consumption landscape was vastly different. There was no branding, advertising, mass media, consumer credit, or Internet; neighbors knew neighbors; social hierarchies were relatively fixed; and discretionary income was largely unknown. This conceptual synthesis suggests that contemporary consumption is driven far more by benign envy involving a desire to “level up” through consumption emulation rather than “level down” by harming others. The concept of benign envy is developed along with an analysis of the forces leading to its displacement of malicious envy and its key role as a motivator of consumption. The paper concludes with a theoretical development of forms of envy and being envied and derives implications for theory and research.


Envy Social comparison Benign envy Leveling Aspirational goods Desire Emulation Covetousness Relative deprivation Positional goods Conspicuous consumption Cultural capital 


  1. Ackerman, D., MacInnis, D., & Folkes, F. (2000). Social comparisons of possessions: when it feels good and when it feels bad. Advances in Consumer Research, 27, 173–178.Google Scholar
  2. Alicke, M. D., & Zell, E. (2008). Social comparison and envy. In R. H. Smith (Ed.), Envy: Theory and research (pp. 73–116). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Ariely, D. (2008). Predictably irrational: The hidden forces that shape our decisions. New York: Harper Collins.Google Scholar
  4. Ariely, D., & Levav, J. (2000). Sequential choice in group settings: taking the road less traveled and less enjoyed, Journal of Consumer Research, 27, 279–290.Google Scholar
  5. Barber, B. (1995). Jihad vs. McWorld: How globalism and tribalism are reshaping the world. New York: Times Books.Google Scholar
  6. Bauman, Z. (2000). Liquid modernity. Cambridge: Polity.Google Scholar
  7. Bearden, W. O., & Etzel, M. J. (1982). Reference group influence on product and brand Reference group influence. Journal of Consumer Research, 9, 183–194.Google Scholar
  8. Belk, R. W. (1988). Possessions and the extended self. Journal of Consumer Research, 15, 139–168.Google Scholar
  9. Belk, R. W. (1995a). ACR fellow’s address: awards, rewards, prizes, and punishments. Advances in Consumer Research, 22, 9–15.Google Scholar
  10. Belk, R. W. (1995b). Collecting in a consumer society. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  11. Belk, R. W. (1999). Leaping luxuries and transitional consumers. In R. Batra (Ed.), Marketing issues in transitional economies (pp. 39–54). Boston: Kluwer.Google Scholar
  12. Belk, R. W. (2001). Specialty magazines and flights of fancy: feeding the desire to desire. European Advances in Consumer Research, 197–202.Google Scholar
  13. Belk, R. W. (2008). Envy and marketing. In R. Smith (Ed.), Envy: Theory and research (pp. 211–226). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Belk, R. W., & Pollay, R. W. (1985). The good life in twentieth century advertising. Journal of Consumer Research, 11, 887–897.Google Scholar
  15. Belk, R. W., Ger, G., & Askegaard, S. (2003). The fire of desire: a multisited inquiry into consumer passion. Journal of Consumer Research, 30, 326–351.Google Scholar
  16. Belk, R. W., Devinney, T., & Eckhardt, G. (2005). Consumer ethics across cultures. Consumption, Markets and Culture, 8, 275–290.Google Scholar
  17. Belk, R. W., Tian, K., & Paavola, H. (2010). Consuming cool: behind the unemotional mask. In R. Belk (Ed.), Research in consumer behavior, Vol 12 (pp. 183–208). Bingly: Emerald.Google Scholar
  18. Berger, J. (1972). Ways of seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation.Google Scholar
  19. Berry, C. J. (1994). The idea of luxury: A conceptual and historical investigation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Bettelheim, B. (1977). The uses of enchantment: The meaning and importance of fairy tales. New York: Vintage.Google Scholar
  21. Boellstorff, T. (2008). Coming of age in second life: An anthropologist explores the virtually human. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Bond, M. H. (1992). Beyond the Chinese face: Insights from psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Boorstin, D. (1973). The Americans: The democratic experience. New York: Random House.Google Scholar
  24. Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: a social critique of the judgment of taste. Richard Nice (translated by). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  25. Buunk, A. P., & Gibbons, F. X. (2007). Social comparison: the end of a theory and the emergence of a field. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 102, 3–21.Google Scholar
  26. Chadha, R., & Husband, P. (2006). The cult of the luxury brand: Inside Asia’s love affair with luxury. London: Nicholas Brealey.Google Scholar
  27. Chaudhuri, H. R., &Majumdar, S. (2006). Of diamonds and desires: understanding conspicuous consumption from a contemporary marketing perspective. Academy of Marketing Science Review, 11,
  28. Chua, A. (2004). World on fire: How exporting free market democracy breeds ethnic hatred and global instability. New York: Anchor.Google Scholar
  29. Cialdini, R. B., Borden, R. J., Thorne, A., Walker, M., Freeman, S., & Sloan, L. (1976). Basking in reflected glory: three (football) field studies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34, 366–375.Google Scholar
  30. Costa, J. A., & Belk, R. (1990). Nouveaux riches as quintessential Americans: Case studies of consumption in an extended family. In R. Belk (Ed.), Advances in nonprofit marketing (Vol. 3, pp. 83–140). Greenwich: JAI Press.Google Scholar
  31. Danziger, P. N. (2005). Let them eat cake: Marketing luxury to the masses—as well as the classes. Chicago: Dearborn Trade Publishing.Google Scholar
  32. D’arms, J., & Kerr, A. D. (2008). Envy in philosophical tradition. In R. H. Smith (Ed.), Envy: Theory and research (pp. 39–59). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  33. De Botton, A. (2004). Status anxiety. New York: Penguin.Google Scholar
  34. de Tarde, G. (1962). The law of imitation. Gloucester: P. Smith.Google Scholar
  35. Ditmar, H. (2008). Consumer well-being: The search for the ‘good life’ and the ‘body perfect’. East Sussex: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  36. Doob, A. N., & Gross, A. E. (1968). Status of frustrator as in inhibitor of horn-honking responses. Journal of Social Psychology, 76, 213–218.Google Scholar
  37. Douglas, M., & Isherwood, B. (1979). The world of goods: Towards an anthropology of consumption. New York: W. W. Norton.Google Scholar
  38. Drakuliç, S. (1991). How we survived communism and even laughed. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
  39. Dundes, A. (1981). The evil eye: A casebook. New York: Garland.Google Scholar
  40. Easterlin, R. A. (1995). Will raising the incomes of all increase the happiness of all? Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 27, 35–47.Google Scholar
  41. Elias, M. (1981). Serum cortisol, testosterone and testosterone binding globulin responses to competitive fighting in human males. Aggressive Behavior, 7(3), 215–224.Google Scholar
  42. Englis, B. G., & Solomon, M. R. (1997). Where perception meets reality: The social construction of lifestyles. In L. R. Kahle & L. Chiagouris (Eds.), Values, lifestyles and psychographics (pp. 25–44). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  43. Epstein, J. (2003). Envy. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  44. Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117–140.Google Scholar
  45. Finnane, A. (2008). Changing clothes in China: Fashion, history, nation. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  46. Fiske, S. T., & Cuddy, A. J. C. (2006). Stereotype content across cultures as a function of group status. In S. Guimond (Ed.), Social comparison and social psychology (pp. 249–263). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  47. Foster, G. M. (1969). Peasant society and the image of limited good. American Anthropologist, 67, 293–315.Google Scholar
  48. Foster, G. M. (1972). The anatomy of envy: a study in symbolic behavior. Current Anthropology, 13, 165–202.Google Scholar
  49. Fox, W. S., & Philliber, W. (1978). Television viewing and the perception of affluence. The Sociological Quarterly, 19, 103–112.Google Scholar
  50. Fraiman, S. (2002). Cool men and the second sex. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  51. Frank, R. H. (1985). Choosing the right pond: Human behavior and the quest for status. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  52. Frank, T. (1997). The conquest of cool: Business culture, counterculture, and the rise of hip consumerism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  53. Gell, A. (1986). Newcomers to the world of goods: Consumption among the muriagond. In A. Appadurai (Ed.), The social life of things (pp. 110–138). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  54. Ger, G. (1992). The positive and negative effects of marketing on socioeconomic development: the Turkish case. Journal of Consumer Policy, 15(3), 229–254.Google Scholar
  55. Ger, G., & Belk, R. (1996). Cross-cultural differences in materialism. Journal of Economic Psychology, 17(February), 55–78.Google Scholar
  56. Ger, G., & Belk, R. (1999). Accounting for materialism in four cultures, Journal of Material Culture, 4(July), 183–204.Google Scholar
  57. Gerbner, G., & Gross, L. (1976). Living with television: the violence profile. Journal of Communication, 26(2), 173–199.Google Scholar
  58. Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorelli, N. (1980). The ‘mainstreaming’ of America: violence profile no. 11. Journal of Communication, 30(3), 10–29.Google Scholar
  59. Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction ritual: Essays on face-to-face behavior. New York: Pantheon Books.Google Scholar
  60. Goldman, R., & Papson, S. (1998). Nike culture. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  61. Gouldner, A. (1965). Enter Plato: Classical Greece and the origins of social theory. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  62. Grimm, J., & Grimm, W. (1997). The complete illustrated fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Ware: Wordsworth.Google Scholar
  63. Hall, G. S., & Smith, T. L. (1903). Showing off and bashfulness as stages of self-consciousness. Pedagogical Seminary, 10, 159–199.Google Scholar
  64. Hills, M. (2006). Not just another powerless elite? When media fans become subcultural celebrities. In S. Holmes & S. Richmond (Eds.), Framing celebrity: New directions in celebrity culture (pp. 101–118). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  65. Hine, T. (1987). Populuxe. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.Google Scholar
  66. Hirsch, F. (1976). The social limits to growth. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  67. Holt, D. (1998). Does cultural capital structure American consumption? Journal of Consumer Research, 25(June), 1–25.Google Scholar
  68. Hughes, D. O. (1983). Sumptuary law and social relations in Renaissance Italy. In J. Bossy (Ed.), Disputes and settlements: Law and human relations in the West (pp. 69–99). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  69. Jenkins, H. (2006). Fans, bloggers, and gamers: Exploring participatory culture. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  70. Johansson, S. (2006). ’Sometimes you wanna hate celebrities’: Tabloid readers and celebrity coverage. In S. Holmes & S. Redmond (Eds.), Framing celebrity: New directions in celebrity culture (pp. 343–361). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  71. Joseph, J. E., Powell, C. A. J., Johnson, N. F., & Gayannée, K. (2008). The functional neuroanatomy of envy. In R. H. Smith (Ed.), Envy: Theory and research (pp. 290–314). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  72. Kline, L., & France, C. J. (1899). The psychology of ownership. Pedagogical Seminary, 6, 421–470.Google Scholar
  73. LaBarbera, P. (1988). The nouveaux riches: Conspicuous consumption and the issue of self-fulfillment. In E. Hirschman & J. N. Sheth (Eds.), Research in consumer behavior (pp. 179–210). Greenwich: JAI Press.Google Scholar
  74. Leach, W. (1993). Land of desire: Merchants, power, and the rise of a new American culture. New York: Pantheon.Google Scholar
  75. Leach, C. W. (2008). Envy, inferiority, and injustice: Three bases of anger about inequality. In R. H. Smith (Ed.), Envy: Theory and research (pp. 94–116). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  76. Leibenstein, H. (1950). Bandwagon, snob and Veblen effects in the theory of consumer demand. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 64(2), 183–207.Google Scholar
  77. Lemaine, G. (1974). Social differentiation and social originality. European Journal of Social Psychology, 4(1), 17–52.Google Scholar
  78. Levy, S. J. (1959). Symbols for sale. Harvard Business Review, 37, 117–124.Google Scholar
  79. Lindholm, C. (2008). Culture and envy. In R. H. Smith (Ed.), Envy: Theory and research (pp. 227–244). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  80. Lyman, S. (1978). The seven deadly sins: Society and evil. New York: St. Martin’s Press.Google Scholar
  81. Madsen, D. (1994). Serotonin and social rank among human males. In R. Masters & M. McGuire (Eds.), The neurotransmitter revolution: Serotonin, social behavior, and the law (pp. 146–158). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.Google Scholar
  82. Majors, R., & Billson, J. M. (1992). Cool pose: The dilemmas of black manhood in America. New York: Touchstone.Google Scholar
  83. Maloney, C. (Ed.). (1976). The evil eye. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  84. Mason, R. (1981). Conspicuous consumption: A study of exceptional consumer behavior. New York: St. Martin’s Press.Google Scholar
  85. Mason, R. (1998). Conspicuous consumption: Theory and thought since 1700. Northampton: Edward Elgar.Google Scholar
  86. Matt, S. J. (1998). Frocks, finery and feelings: Rural and urban women’s envy, 1890–1930. In P. Stearns & J. Lewis (Eds.), An emotional history of the United States (pp. 377–395). New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  87. Matt, S. J. (2002). Children’s envy and the emergence of the modern consumer ethic, 1890–1930. Journal of Social History, 36(2), 283–302.Google Scholar
  88. Matt, S. J. (2003). Keeping up with the Joneses: envy in American consumer society, 1890–1930. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Google Scholar
  89. May, L. (1980). Screening out the past: The birth of the motion picture industry. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  90. Mazur, A., & Lamb, T. A. (1980). Testosterone, status, and mood in human males. Hormones and Behavior, 14(3), 236–246.Google Scholar
  91. McCracken, G. (2005). Culture and consumption II: Markets, meaning, and brand management (pp. 53–90). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  92. McCracken, G. (2008). Transformations: Identity construction in contemporary culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  93. Miles, S. (1998). Consumerism—as a way of life. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  94. Miller, G. (2009). Spent, sex, evolution, and consumer behavior. New York: Viking.Google Scholar
  95. Nueno, J. L., & Quelch, J. A. (1998). The mass marketing of luxury. Business Horizons, (November–December), 61–68.Google Scholar
  96. O’Guinn, T. C., & Shrum, L. J. (1997). The role of television in the construction of consumer reality. Journal of Consumer Research, 23(March), 278–294.Google Scholar
  97. Ortony, A., Clore, G. L., & Collins, A. (1988). The cognitive structure of emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  98. Packard, V. (1959). The status seekers. New York: David McKay.Google Scholar
  99. Palaver, W. (2005). Envy or emulation: A Christian understanding of economic passions. In W. Palaver & P. Steinmair-Pösel (Eds.), Passions in economy, politics, and the media (pp. 139–162). Vienna: Lit Verlag.Google Scholar
  100. Petersson, B. (2004). Envy and paths to equality. Paper presented at Oxford Round Table, Lincoln College, University of Oxford, March 28–April 2, available at, accessed April 26, 2010.
  101. Philip, N. (1989). The cinderella story. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  102. Pountain, D., & Robins, D. (2000). Cool rules: Anatomy of an attitude. London: Reaktion.Google Scholar
  103. Powell, C. A. J., Smith, R. H., & Shurtz, D. R. (2008). Schadenfreude caused by an envied person’s pain. In R. H. Smith (Ed.), Envy: Theory and research (pp. 148–164). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  104. Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  105. Richins, M. (1991). Social comparison and the idealized images of advertising. Journal of Consumer Research, 18(June), 71–83.Google Scholar
  106. Richins, M. (1992). Media images, materialism, and what ought to be: The role of social comparison. In F. Rudmin & M. Richins (Eds.), Meaning, measure, and morality of materialism (pp. 202–206). Association for Consumer Research: Provo.Google Scholar
  107. Rosenbaum, M. S. (2005). The symbolic servicescape: your kind is welcome here. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 4(4), 257–267.Google Scholar
  108. Sandikci, Ö., & Ger, G. (2010). Veiling in style: how does a stigmatized practice become fashionable? Journal of Consumer Research, 37, 15–36.Google Scholar
  109. Sassatelli, R. (2005). Consumer culture: History, theory and politics. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  110. Schau, H. J., & Gilly, M. C. (2003). We are what we post? self-presentation in personal web space. Journal of Consumer Research, 30(December), 385–404.Google Scholar
  111. Schell, O. (1984). To get rich is glorious: China in the 80s. New York: Pantheon.Google Scholar
  112. Schimmel, S. (2008). Envy in Jewish thought and literature. In R. H. Smith (Ed.), Envy: Theory and research (pp. 17–38). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  113. Schoeck, H. (1966). Envy: A theory of social behavior. New York: Bantam Doubleday.Google Scholar
  114. Schudson, M. (1984). Advertising, the uneasy persuasion: Its dubious impact on American society. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  115. Shrum, L. J. (2001). Processing strategy moderates the cultivation effect. Human Communication Research, 27, 94–120.Google Scholar
  116. Shrum, L. J., Burroughs, J. E., & Rindfleisch, A. (2005). Television’s cultivation of material values. Journal of Consumer Research, 32(December), 473–479.Google Scholar
  117. Simmel, G. (1904). Fashion. International Quarterly, 10, 130–155.Google Scholar
  118. Smith, A. (1759). The theory of moral sentiments. London: Millar, Kincaid, and Bell.Google Scholar
  119. Smith, R. (1991). Envy and the sense of injustice. In P. Salovey (Ed.), The psychology of envy and jealousy (pp. 79–99). New York: Guilford.Google Scholar
  120. Smith, R., & Kim, S. H. (2007). Comprehending envy. Psychological Bulletin, 133(1), 46–64.Google Scholar
  121. Smith, R., Parrott, G., Ozer, D., & Moniz, A. (1994). Subjective injustice and inferiority as predictors of hostile and depressive feelings in envy. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20(6), 705–711.Google Scholar
  122. Sobh, R., & Belk, R. (2011). Gender privacy in Arab gulf states: implications for consumption and marketing. In: O. Sandicki & G. Rice (Eds.), Handbook of Islamic marketing. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 23–96.Google Scholar
  123. Sobh, R., Belk, R., & Gressel, J. (2009). The scented winds of change: conflicting notions of modesty and vanity among young Qatari and Emirati women. Asia-Pacific Advances in Consumer Research, 2009, 342–343.Google Scholar
  124. Stearns, P. N. (1999). The battleground of desire: The struggle for self-control in modern America. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  125. Stevens, L., & Maclaren, P. (2005). Exploring the shopping imaginary: the dream worlds of women’s magazines. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 4(4), 268–281.Google Scholar
  126. Suls, J. (1986). Comparison processes in relative deprivation: A life-span analysis. In J. M. Olson, C. P. Herman, & M. P. Zanna (Eds.), Relative deprivation and social comparison (pp. 95–116). Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  127. Sundie, J. M., Ward, J. C., Beal, D. J., Chin, W. W., & Geiger-Oneto, S. (2009). Schadenfreude as a consumption-related emotion: feeling happiness about the downfall of another’s product. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 19(July), 356–373.Google Scholar
  128. Theodoropoulou, V. (2007). The anti-fan and the fan: awe and envy in sport fandom. In J. Gray, C. Sandvoss, & C. L. Harrington (Eds.), Fandom: Identities in a mediated world (pp. 316–327). New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  129. Thrift, N. (2008). The material practices of glamour. Journal of Cultural Economy, 1(March), 9–23.Google Scholar
  130. Tickle, P. A. (2004). Greed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  131. Touraine, A. (1998). Can we live together, equal, and different? European Journal of Social Theory, 1, 165–178.Google Scholar
  132. Twitchell, J. B. (2002). Living it up: Our love affair with luxury. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  133. Ulanov, A., & Ulanov, B. (2008). Cinderella and her sisters: The envied and the envying. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.Google Scholar
  134. Üstüner, T., & Holt, D. B. (2010). Toward a theory of status consumption in less industrialized countries. Journal of Consumer Research, 37, 37–56.Google Scholar
  135. Van de Ven, N. (2009). The bright side of a deadly sin: The psychology of envy. Amsterdam: Kurt Lewin Institute.Google Scholar
  136. Van de Ven, N., Zeelenberg, M., & Pieters, R. (2009). Leveling up and leveling down: the experiences of benign and malicious envy. Emotion, 9(3), 419–429.Google Scholar
  137. Van de Ven, N., Zeelenberg, M., & Pieters, R. (2011). The envy premium in product evaluation. Journal of Consumer Research, 37(6), 984–998.Google Scholar
  138. Veblen, T. (1899). The theory of the leisure class. New York: MacMillan.Google Scholar
  139. Walker, I., & Smith, H. J. (Eds.). (2002). Relative deprivation: Specification, development, and integration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  140. Westlake, E. J. (2008). Friend me if you facebook: generation y and performative surveillance. TDR: The Drama Review, 21–40Google Scholar
  141. Wong, N., & Ahuvia, A. (1998). Personal taste and family face: luxury consumption in Confucian and western societies. Psychology and Marketing, 15(5), 423–441.Google Scholar
  142. Wooten, D. B. (2006). From labelling possessions to possessing labels: ridicule and socialization among adolescents. Journal of Consumer Research, 33, 188–198.Google Scholar
  143. Zhao, B., & Murdock, G. (1996). Young pioneers: children and the making of Chinese consumerism. Cultural Studies, 10(2), 201–217.Google Scholar
  144. Zizzo, D. J. (2003). Money burning and rank egalitarianism with random dictators. Economics Letters, 81, 263–266.Google Scholar
  145. Zizzo, D. J., & Oswald, A. J. (2001). Are people willing to pay to reduce others’ incomes? Annalesd’Economieet de Statistique, 63–64, 39–62.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Academy of Marketing Science 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Kraft Foods Canada Chair in Marketing, Schulich School of BusinessYork UniversityTorontoCanada

Personalised recommendations