Sunday, January 22, 2012

On the Origins of Envy

Readers of this blog are familiar with the oft-quoted observation of biologist/philosopher D'Arcy Thompson:
[E]verything is the way it is becuase it got that way.
Writer Max Borders explores this dynamic in his excellent essay 'The Origins of Envy' :
...Any human emotion can become destructive by degree. Economist Young Back Choi thinks that envy is particularly destructive because it “is man's desire to eliminate others' relative gains even if he would become absolutely worse off in the process.” We see this in the original Ultimatum game. And we see it in the brutal consequences of Stalin and Mao. "Because a certain degree of selfless behavior is essential to the smooth performance of any human group,” writes Natalie Angier in The New York Times, “selflessness run amok can crop up in political contexts. It fosters the exhilarating sensation of righteous indignation, the belief in the purity of your team and your cause and the perfidiousness of all competing teams and causes."
Understood this way, envy, despite its evolutionary rationale, does not seem very sane. Perhaps we should hope that any given person is likely to be a little better off over time, even if some are a lot better off (even if this goes against the emotional grain). Alas, a positive-sum orientation is neither a feature of the egalitarian ethos, nor any politics of envy. And this is just one aspect of the trouble with the Stone Age Trinity as it gets institutionalized. “Envy is appeased only at equality, regardless of the absolute level of consumption,” adds Choi. “’Only those societies that have been able to develop sufficient means to mitigate the destructive forces of envy have been able to build civilizations and prosper. Anthropologists have documented that two of the most distinguishing features of poor societies are the relative free expression of envy and the universal fear of envy on the part of those who come to have above-average gains.”

Envy can creep into both our politics and our personal lives. So also can envy’s sister emotions, guilt and indignation. All three are facets of a brain that was sculpted by millennia in a mostly zero-sum environment. But now we can live in a positive-sum world.
Update (05/28/2012): Thou can’t not covet: Wanting what others have may be hardwired in the brain:
As every kid knows, the very best toy is the one that someone else is playing with. A new study on covetous adults explains why other people’s possessions always seem better.

Seeds of this desire are sown in the mirror neuron system, a part of the brain that is activated in a similar pattern whether a person is performing an action or merely watching someone else do it.
“Mimetic desire” was first articulated by the French philosopher René Girard in the 1980s. Envy can spread among people like a disease, a force that explains much of human behavior, Girard proposed. Now, French neuroscientists have verified the phenomenon and even attempted to explain how it happens.

“They really take a philosophical theory and make it an experiment,” says neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni of UCLA.
Copying other people’s desires is a good way to learn about the environment, says study coauthor Mathias Pessiglione of INSERM in Paris. Eating the food that other people eat, for example, is a simple way to avoid food poisoning. But this adaptive feature can break down when desired objects are in short supply.
Pessiglione and his team showed adults one of two videos: a piece of candy sitting on a surface, or a person’s hand reaching toward a different-colored piece of candy. Participants then rated the desirability of each candy they saw. As the mimetic desire theory predicts, people rated the about-to-get-grabbed candy as more desirable. The same effect held for clothes, tools and even toys, the team reports in the May 23 Journal of Neuroscience.

Brain scans revealed that two systems are behind the phenomenon. First, activity in parts of the brain’s mirror neuron system — the parietal lobe and the premotor cortex — increased. Second, the parts of the brain involved with deciding how much objects are worth — the ventral striatum and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex — got busy.
These two systems are linked, so that the mirror neuron system kicks on and tells the brain’s valuation system to rank the object highly, the team’s analyses of the brain scans revealed.
The strength of this connection was associated with how much mimetic desire a person felt, the team found. A stronger connection meant a deeper longing for someone else’s candy. “The stronger the connection, the more susceptible you are to social influence,” Pessiglione says. 
These results raise lots of questions that can now be tested, Iacoboni says. “This could start a whole snowball effect.” Similar experiments could test whether people with autism spectrum disorders, who seem to value social interactions less, have a weaker connection between the mirror neuron system and the brain valuation system.
Other experiments might test the limits of mimetic desire by replacing an obviously human hand with a robot’s or a chimp’s.
Related: For the Brain, Cash Is Good, Status Is Better: New studies show that money and social values are processed in the same brain region, providing insight into how we make choices (Scientific American, 4/24/2008):
New research shows for the first time that we process cash and social values in the same part of our brain (the striatum)—and likely weigh them against one another when making decisions. So what's more important—money or social standing? It might be the latter, according to two new studies published in the journal Neuron...


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