Psychology of envy on social media

Envy can be a very painful emotion. But with the rise of social media it has become even more prevalent. Especially among women. You probably know by now my general thoughts about social media, but in this post I want to talk about it in relation to envy.

Envy is a quite complex emotion. One of the most famous examples of envy is the biblical story about Cain who killed his brother Abel, because God favored his brother's sacrafice more than his (Genesis 4). The reason for the first ever murder in history is unknown but it is believed to be jealousy.

Every emotion we experience has it's own biological and psychological reasons, and I am quite interested in learning more about them. What is hiding behind us feeling a certain way?

Biological causes of envy

In evolutionary terms, emotions are adaptive responses to the environment. They are supposed to increase our chances of survival. However emotions are more complex than simple adaptations[1]

Envy is an adaptive response to limited resources shared by our group (a social group to which a person psychologically identifies as being a member). Scientists say, that envy evolved to motivate access to those resources[2]. When we look at what others have, we notice what we could have that would increase our chances for survival, - the experts at Boise State University say. 

These days we mostly deal with the perceived limits of resources, and most of the times inability to have access to them wouldn't affect our survival. 

Psychology behind influencer marketing

Interestingly enough we are envious of those who belong to our group, not of those who seem to be “off scale”. That's why it's easier to be envious of "influencers" ("regular people like me") online than some famous superstars, because "no amount of effort by me can result in reaching his level of prosperity". Envying those whose level we objectively can't achieve would be a waste of our resouces. 

Influencer marketing works because it uses tactics like word-of-mouth marketing and social proof, which are now critical aspects of any successful marketing strategy, - the experts at Hubspot (online marketing experts) say[3]. It turns out that customers trust their peers, friends, and people they admire (their group) more than the companies. 

About 49% of consumers depend on influencers' recommendations for their purchase decisions. 60% say they've been influenced by a recommendation when shopping in-store. That's a lot! 

But it's not only that we rely on the opinion of "social media stars" choosing a product that we need. Oftentimes we buy certain products that influencers use in order to be like them, because most people on social media are from our group, "they are like us", but just a little bit different - better. We are just one product (or more) away from "becoming them". The reason why people would want to be like someone else is because influencers' life often looks much better, more glamorous, exiting and fun. That is how it is presented online. 

Therefore social media is fueled by envy[4]. And envy has become a helping tool for industries to make money. 

Of course comparison plays a huge role in the success of social media and stimulates envy. Social comparison theory developed in 1954 by psychologist Leon Festinger states that individuals determine their own social and personal worth based on how they stack up against others[5]

Envy may cause mental health problems

In case with social media influence envy doesn't serve it's original purpose. Most of the times instead of promoting self-improvement, envy and comparison lead us to having unhealthy relationships with ourselves. 

Media is recognized as one of the main sources contributing to the excessive concerns about food intake, weight, and physical appearance among normal weight, non-eating disordered women and adolescents[6]. Without media many of us wouldn't even think about the "issues" we are concerned about today. But social media represents unlimited amounts of information we are exposed to every day, and constant scrolling through other people's feeds contributes to our mental health problems even more than traditional media sources. 

Studies show, that limiting the use of social media can lead to significant reduction in loneliness and depression[7], abstaining from it (Facebook in particular) can actually improve the quality of our lives[8]

It's important to mention, that these people we look up to don't necessarly share their authentic lives, meaning that what they wear, what they find useful and what they like in general is sponsored by big companies. So most of the times our perception of their "happiness" or "better lives" is wrong. Remember, grass is never greener on the other side!

Is envy bad after all?

Envy is not an inherently bad emotion if it leads to self-improvement and growth. We don't need to always compare and envy for that though. In the modern world envy can be very toxic for our mental health as it only causes us to feel bad about ourselves without even trying to do anything about it. Overexposure to social media can lead to constant dissatisfaction and low self-esteem, if all it does is promotes envy. So if we are unable to properly recognize our emotions and use them in order to better ourselves, we should try to abstain from social media as much as possible and focus on our own lives without unnecessary distractions and influence of other people. 


[1] Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, Baland Jalal, The Evolutionary Psychology of Envy and Jealousy, article, 19 September 2017, <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5609545/>

[2] Shannon Evans, Here's What Happens To Your Brain When You Experience Envy, According To Science, article. 15 August 2018, <https://www.romper.com/p/heres-what-happens-to-your-brain-when-you-experience-envy-according-to-science-10070812>

[3] Kristen Baker, What Will Influencer Marketing Look Like in 2020, article, 2 December 2019, <https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/how-to-work-with-influencers>

[4] Jiyoung Chae, Explaining Females' Envy Toward Social Media Influencers, article, 12 June 2017 <https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15213269.2017.1328312?journalCode=hmep20>

[5] Psychology Today, Social Comparison Theory, article, <https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/social-comparison-theory>

[6] Amanda F. Suplee, Loma Linda University, The Effects of Appearance-Based Reality Shows on Body Image, thesis, September 2014, <https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/43fe/8d05974a8ca7ff0d3071bfc318b69aae6482.pdf>

[7] Melissa G. Hunt, Rachel Marx, Courtney Lipson, Jordyn Young, No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression, Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, abstract, 2018, <https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2018.37.10.751>

[8] Shakya HBChristakis NAAssociation of Facebook Use With Compromised Well-Being: A Longitudinal Study, abstract, 1 February 2017, <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28093386>