Time may be the best treatment for jealousy

Alice G. Walton | Jun 12, 2019

If you’re consumed with envy over your neighbor’s coming vacation, just wait. The jealousy, or “sting of inferiority,” you feel today may well dissipate once the trip is over and done with, according to London Business School’s Alexander C. Kristal, Chicago Booth’s Ed O’Brien, and UCLA’s Eugene M. Caruso. The finding could help managers prevent the damaging effects of jealousy in the workplace.

Research findings on how people feel about others’ experiences have been somewhat mixed. Some studies suggest that the jealousy is worse once experiences are in the past, as they’re no longer theoretical and become real and “owned.” But other studies find that feelings about the future are generally more charged. 

To analyze the temporal element of envy, Kristal, O’Brien, and Caruso first queried people about how they would feel if a friend enjoyed each of five enviable experiences: a dream vacation, a dream date, a dream job offer, a dream house, and a dream car. Half the participants were asked to rate their feelings of jealousy for experiences that were set to occur in the future, while others rated them as if the events had occurred in the past. Jealousy of future experiences was worse, they find. 

Next, Kristal, O’Brien, and Caruso used an actual holiday—the envy-inspiring Valentine’s Day—as it came and went. They recruited groups of 100 people each day in February and asked participants how they felt about people with desirable Valentine’s Day plans. The level of envy rose as Valentine’s approached, and receded after it passed, the study demonstrates.

But there are types of jealousy, and the researchers examined how two forms—benign and malicious envy—changed over time. They had participants imagine a real person in their lives was experiencing an enviable event, and asked how the participants would feel while the event was approaching or after it had passed. Then they asked a series of questions to measure benign jealousy, which is generally pleasant and motivating, and malicious jealousy, which often involves ill will. Participants’ benign jealousy was about the same as or even higher when the event was in the past rather than the future, they find. But malicious jealousy was significantly lower when the event was in the past, suggesting that the less pleasant form of envy may be the one that’s more susceptible to time, Kristal, O’Brien, and Caruso find. 

Finally, the researchers studied whether they could harness this phenomenon therapeutically by having people intentionally take a “past perspective”—or imagine how a particular event would feel if it were a year in the past. They find that participants felt not only less malicious jealousy when they imagined the event in the past, but also less stress and greater well-being, compared with people who were asked to imagine the jealousy-inducing event a year in the future.  

“There is something of a paradox in our reactions to people who get to have what we want,” the researchers conclude. “It stings less if they already have it.” 

The findings are relevant to virtual interactions as well as in-person meetings. Facebook-related depression has a lot to do with the jealousy that comes from social comparisons, research suggests. So framing updates as past rather than future events might be a kinder way to post. The same goes for professional situations, the researchers say. “A boss might be wise to announce that a competitive promotion ‘has gone to Ayelet’ [rather] than that the promotion ‘will go to Ayelet.’”