The purpose of the present research was to investigate whether trait self-esteem level and state self-esteem instability were associated with benign envy (i.e., the desire to improve one's own position) and malicious envy (i.e., the desire to damage a superior person's position). In the current study (N = 182), we extend previous research in this area by examining the possibility that state self-esteem instability would moderate the associations that trait self-esteem level had with the benign and malicious forms of envy. The results indicate that (1) trait self-esteem level was negatively associated with both benign and malicious envy, (2) state self-esteem instability was positively associated with benign envy, and (3) state self-esteem instability moderated the association between trait self-esteem level and malicious envy such that individuals with stable high self-esteem reported lower levels of malicious envy compared to those with unstable high self-esteem or low levels of trait self-esteem (regardless of whether their low self-esteem was stable or unstable). Taken together, these findings suggest that trait self-esteem level and state self-esteem instability have important connections with the benign and malicious forms of envy.
Envy is a deeply unpleasant emotion that arises from upward social comparisons that reflect poorly on the self (e.g., Parrott & Smith, 1993). Envy is rooted in an individual's realization that he or she lacks something valuable that belongs to another person such as a personal attribute (e.g., intelligence, beauty), an accomplishment (e.g., winning an election), a relationship (e.g., having an attractive spouse), or a possession (e.g., financial wealth; Parrott & Smith, 1993). The sorts of upward social comparisons that tend to trigger feelings of envy are those that involve threats to one's feelings of self-worth because they reflect an erosion of one's relative social position (Salovey & Rodin, 1984). That is, individuals are most likely to experience envy when they perceive themselves as being inferior in some way to another individual (see Lange, Blatz, & Crusius, in press, for a review). Feelings of envy often motivate individuals to attempt to overcome their perceived inferiority (Salovey & Rodin, 1984). In essence, there are two approaches for leveling the differences between oneself and the envied individual (e.g., Lange & Crusius, 2015). The first approach is referred to as benign envy which involves the desire to attain the advantage that the superior person possesses (i.e., the goal is to bring oneself up to the level of the superior person). The existence of this benign form of envy is supported by research showing that envy is associated with positive thoughts about superior others (van de Ven, Zeelenberg, & Pieters, 2009), hopes for future success (Lange & Crusius, 2015), and shifts in attention toward means that are beneficial for fostering one's own achievements (Crusius & Lange, 2014). The second approach is referred to as malicious envy which involves the desire to deprive the superior person of his or her advantage (i.e., the goal is to pull the superior person down to one's own level). The existence of the malicious form of envy – which has been the focus of most previous research concerning envy – is supported by a wide array of results including those showing envy to be associated with certain aspects of narcissism (Lange, Crusius, & Hagemeyer, 2016), hostility and antagonistic thoughts about superior others (van de Ven et al., 2009), and fear of failure (Lange & Crusius, 2015).