It’s not enough that I succeed…

  • Share
  • Read Later

…others around me must fail.

Admit it: that’s how many of us feel. And I’m not just talking to you, Barack and Hillary.

You know that feeling when you land that highly sought project—but then you learn your colleague nabbed one that’s even better? Or when you publish an important article—just as your long-struggling college buddy finally sells his manuscript, and it becomes a bestseller? Or when you walk by a colleague’s office and discover her view is kinda sorta nicer than yours? Plus she’s recently lost weight?

It’s not jealousy, exactly. It’s that we see our own successes in relative terms. We’re constantly, obsessively gazing over the picket fence into our neighbor’s lawn, thinking, If only my dog would die, then my lawn too would be free of poop.

Shankar Vendentam writes about this phenomenon in Monday’s Washington Post:

When someone we know or love excels at something, we take pride in her accomplishment because we care about the other person and get to bask in some of her reflected glory. But when we are involved in the same activity as that friend or intimate partner — and feel bested by that person — we can simultaneously feel envious and threatened, in a way we would not if the star performer were a stranger.

I think this feeling crops up so frequently at work because we’re surrounded by people who a) do the same job, b) do it well, and c) are competing for the same rewards. It doesn’t help that many of those people aren’t just our colleagues, but our friends. The Post article highlights the work of Abraham Tesser, a social psychologist at the University of Georgia at Athens:

Many couples and friends tell researchers they feel no envy or resentment toward a partner who does well, but controlled experiments show otherwise. In one, Tesser and his colleagues videotaped people as they were told that someone close to them had outperformed them. The volunteers said they were delighted, but impartial analysis of the video revealed that their expressions of pride were leavened with dismay.

In another experiment, Tesser and his colleagues brought groups of four people into a lab, with each group consisting of two pairs of friends. The volunteers were asked to play a word game, where three of them in turn gave clues to the fourth. When people were told that the game revealed how intelligent they were, and they then did badly, they tended to undermine the friend by giving her difficult clues in the next round. But they gave easy clues to strangers.

When the players were led to believe the game was trivial, however, they were more likely to give easy clues to their friends; the game was unimportant, so it did not matter if the friend outperformed them.

In a third study, Tesser had participants compete in a quiz. They did not know that their competitor was really a research assistant who had memorized all the answers. The volunteers inevitably lost, of course, but some were told that the quiz was an important test of intelligence; others were told the quiz was just a meaningless game.

In this week’s TIME, Karen Tumulty delivers a probing look at Bill Clinton in an article titled The Bitter Half. If Tesser’s theories hold up, it does make you wonder if Bill Clinton doesn’t experience a teeny tiny bit of joy in his spouse’s failure to enjoy his own political success. Nah—I’m sure he wouldn’t. Politicians aren’t petty like that.