Envy as Powerful Motivator: Maria Konnikova in The New Yorker
She’s not suggesting that we foster ruthless competitiveness. She also admits that “feeling envy is unpleasant,” and is “frequently corrosive and destructive.” But not all forms of envy are the same. According to research by psychologist Niels van de Ven, there’s a crucial difference between malicious and benign versions—and the two “spur us to act in very different ways.” His test subjects reported that “malicious envy felt much more frustrating, the experience led to a motivation to hurt the other, and one hoped that the other would fail in something.” In other words, nastiness, hostility, resentfulness, or what we typically attribute to the emotion.
On the other hand, feelings of benign envy had much more positive effects. To Konnikova, it may even “inspire us to reach new heights of achievement.” In van de Ven’s study, test subjects experiencing the benign form claimed “the other was liked more, the situation was more inspiring, and one tried harder to attain more for oneself.” Benign envy thus operates like a somewhat painful admiration; those experiencing it “worked harder” to “change for the better.” Separate studies show that benign envy correlates with “an increase in [a subject’s] ability to pay attention to, and commit details to memory about, the target.” Still other research shows benign envy can have a positive impact on creativity tests and remote associates tasks.
In columns like this—and in her illuminating talks—Konnikova makes cutting-edge psychology meaningful and relevant. Combining fascinating neuroscience and surprising discoveries, Konnikova’s keynotes can help individuals and organizations improve their creative powers and sharpen their perceptions.
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