Editor’s Note: Friends and members of The Atlas Society are a major source of knowledge and wisdom. Social Psychologist Joe Duarte, Ph.D. recently spoke with The Atlas Society about his empirical work on various forms of envy. His research has focused on the relationship between envy, narcissism, and self-esteem and the relationship between envy and anti-Semitism. He is also interested in how political bias in social psychology and related fields undermines research, including research on envy. Dr. Duarte earned his Ph.D. at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona and was a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. He is a Data Analyst at Natera in the Bay area.

MM: You are an Open Objectivist. When did you first discover Ayn Rand?

JD:  I was in the Navy when I discovered Ayn Rand. I ended up reading The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged at the same time. 

MM:  Has Rand influenced you in any way?

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JD: She did influence me. I had just become an atheist after reading Carl Sagan. After I read Ayn Rand, I became a libertarian and an Objectivist.  She influenced me immediately in her description of the virtue of selfishness, and the cardinal virtues: rationality, productiveness, pride. 

Long term, she made me realize that I wanted to be in the fray in terms of ideas and intellectual work. It took me a long time to get there, and I am still working on it. But once I read her, from that point on, I was never going to settle for a conventional life, I wasn’t going to follow the traditional Mexican-American timeline for marriage and family, or do what my mom wanted me to do. Rand really changed the course of my life. 

She also made it more stressful, especially while I was in the Navy, since the Navy isn’t really the place to practice individualism. 

MM: You are a social psychologist. What is that exactly?

JD: A social psychologist is someone who researches normal human behaviors, typical behaviors you might say. As a rule we don’t look at dysfunction or medical problems, because that is what clinical psychologists observe. Social psychology is about social behavior, what humans normally do in the population at large. It is looking for answers to questions such as  – “Do humans have an evolved disposition toward envy?” – and not whether someone is suffering from a specific psychological disorder. 

MM: How did you decide to do that?

JD: Originally I wanted to do positive psychology, and it probably started with listening to Nathaniel Branden. After that the person who got me most interested in positive psychology –  that is, character, happiness, and wellbeing – was Martin Seligman. I got a bachelor’s degree at ASU planning all along to go to graduate school. I got some research experience and was accepted to a graduate program. A year into the program, I changed my focus from positive psychology to envy and then ultimately researched anti-Semitism. So, I pivoted in grad school from positive psychology to studying envy.

MM: There has been important work on envy to date: Helmut Schoeck’s book Envy and of course Ayn Rand’s series “The Age of Envy.” At The Atlas Society, we call envy an STD – a socially transmitted disease. But more work needs to be done. How did you get interested in envy?

JD: I learned about some Dutch researchers who were looking at different kinds of envy. In Dutch, there are two different words for envy, which basically translate as malicious envy and benign envy. 

Malicious envy is about holding other people down, feeling hostile toward them, wishing something bad would happen to them, wishing they would fail, wishing they could somehow be pulled down to your level.

Benign envy is still envy, still a negative emotion that is unpleasant to experience, but it motivates people to lift themselves up to the level envied in others. It is more about feeling motivated to work harder and achieve more.

The theory is that envy is a levelling mechanism. Malicious envy is about leveling another person down. Benign envy is about leveling oneself up. In both cases, it is about equalizing as a motivation. 

MM: That makes sense. In “The Age of Envy,” Rand wrote about two kinds of envy. The malicious kind you mention she defined as “hatred of the good for being good,” wanting to see the good destroyed. She also wrote about what you call benign envy. It is the feeling, “I can do that,” or “I wish I had that,” a feeling which motivates us to achieve.

She thought the latter wasn’t altogether harmful. While she didn’t advise people to live a life of one-upmanship, if someone does see something others are doing and thinks, “That makes sense for me,” she didn’t see that as harmful since the result is emulation, and frankly, competition, rather than hatred.

Tell me some of the things you are learning about envy from your research.

JD: So far my research has focused on envy in relation to anti-Semitism. I concluded that envy is a major factor in anti-Semitism. The darkest turn that anti-Semitism takes is when you tell people that Jews are inherently or genetically superior to non-Jews. 

A typical social psychology experiment gives people something to read to trigger an emotional response or prejudice. I wrote a short article documenting the numerous accomplishments of Jews – their disproportionate share of Nobel prizes, their enjoyment of the highest average income of any ethnic group – all of which is true. In one variation of the experiment I exposed participants to research coming out of the University of Utah that postulates that Jews have genetic advantages in intelligence, Ashkenazi Jews in particular. 

But in exchange for these genetic advantages in intelligence, the same genes may also be responsible for some of the diseases that disproportionately afflict Jews, like Tay-Sachs disease. 

So there is a possible trade-off between higher IQ and a vulnerability toward certain diseases. Learning of the trade mitigated some of the envy for those participating in the experiment. But those who were told about the genetic advantages without the trade-off were in turn the most anti-Semitic.

When we think about envy this makes sense. Benign envy is about leveling oneself up to another person. But there are certain types of achievements in certain domains where that is simply not possible. You can’t work harder to be more beautiful. You can’t beat a genetic advantage, at least not yet, not without genetic engineering. If someone is genetically superior to you, or even if you just believe that they are, I found that that situation leads to more malicious envy. 

MM: Have you thought about malicious envy in terms of socialism? While the Bernie Sanders candidacy seems to be fading, socialist ideas are still very much a part of our current political climate. Is there a link between envy and socialism?

JD: It is on my “To Do” list as an obvious question to ask. The social psychology field, however, is dominated by leftists, and they aren’t inclined to ask that question. There is very little research on envy in general. It is all very new. You mentioned Helmut Schoeck’s book, that’s from the 1960s. For some reason it didn’t spark a lot of empirical research. So it seems that socialism is partially driven by envy because it is premised on this obsession with what leftists call “inequality,” but what I call “income variance.” The motivating premise of socialism seems to be that income variation is bad, that financial inequality is bad or inherently unjust. I think that is a huge, huge assumption. I’m not sure why you would care so much about income inequality if envy wasn’t part of the picture. 

MM: Especially the attacks on millionaires and billionaires and the demands for punitive, confiscatory taxation. It implies that it would be better if everyone were poor than that some people are wealthy.

JD: I’m reminded of Bernie Sanders and his trip to the Soviet Union back in the 1980s. Also, the person, I think Ayn Rand talked about, who visited the Soviet Union in the 1930s, who said how marvelous it was that everyone was equally shabby.

More recently at least, I’m understanding a little bit more about why people look at others and think, “They have a lot more than I do.” 

MM: There are people who argue that socialism is morally superior to capitalism. How do we make that argument go away?

JD: Right. Speaking directly to the moral argument, I like to ask, “What is wrong with income variance?” Socialists don’t actually know what to say when someone asks them, “What’s wrong with some people making more money than other people?” 

In effect, I try to move the discussion away from equality and inequality, since I think that is a scam. Equality has a positive ring to it for almost everyone because even if we aren’t concerned about income inequality, most of us believe in equality before the law and equal treatment and respect. The socialists are talking about a different kind of equality than most of us support. They are talking about income variance, the fact that some people earn more money than others. 

I press socialists to explain to me what is wrong with that. Prove to me, show me, what is wrong with income variance? What is wrong with some people making more money than others? They take it as a primary, as if it is axiomatically unjust. From everything I know and have thought about philosophically for a long time, this is a HUGE MISTAKE. 

There is NOTHING WRONG with income variance, and there is no reason to prefer equality or sameness of incomes or an arbitrary direction toward equality. There is no reason to prefer a graph of any particular shape or a line of any particular shape when it comes to income distribution.

It is possible to guarantee that you won’t be poor in America – and this is totally underexposed as a reality –  if you make a certain small set of choices and engage in a certain small set of behaviors, and those choices and behaviors are in themselves reasonable and realistic: 

  • don’t get pregnant or get anyone else pregnant until you get married
  • don’t get married too young
  • finish high school
  • go to college
  • finish college. 

Do those things and you are guaranteed not to be poor. They are  NOT, however, a guarantee that you are going to make a ton of money. 

Having children out of wedlock is a huge problem in America today. It is a devastating problem that leads to all sorts of downstream consequences. That behavior is becoming more mainstream, and we aren’t addressing it. This is an area where conservatives were right. The importance of a traditional family structure for children is absolutely correct and it is, regardless of whether you attach religion to it, a good culture to have in America. 

So, if income equality is not morally relevant, and it isn’t, then socialism can’t be morally superior. I don’t care about income equality and neither should anyone else. Why should I care about how steep some bell curve is? I don’t care about curves. Why do you? Why should I care about how income is distributed? I don’t want more inequality. I don’t want more equality. I don’t care. And I need socialists to explain to me why they do. 

I haven’t heard a good answer yet.

MM: Also, it seems like arguments about income inequality look at only a particular point in time. For most people, wealth varies with age. When people are young, they usually have less money and fewer skills to market. And then there are people who get quite wealthy and some who lose their wealth.

JD: I was surprised to learn that the standard income inequality studies don’t control for age, and I’m still confused by that. Over the lifespan a lot can happen, and normally over the lifespan people make more money as they get older, or at the very least they’ve had more time to accrue savings. The inequality statistics actually compare 23 year olds with 50 year olds. That should not be in the stats. That should be controlled out. If I cared about income variance, I’d want to see studies controlled for age, or broken down into age buckets. 

MM: Well, thank you. You cleared up a lot of things for me. I enjoyed talking with you.

JD: Thank you.

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