(Mis)imagining the good life and the bad life: Envy and pity as a function of the focusing illusion
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
57 Pages Posted: 5 Jan 2023
Date Written: October 2, 2017
Envy is a negative state arising when we encounter others with more desirable circumstances than our own. Its converse is pity, a negative state elicited by downward comparisons towards worse-off others. Both classes of emotions first require us to infer what a person’s life as a whole must be like. However, the “focusing illusion” suggests these impressions of others are incomplete: we may overweight extreme features (the exceptionally good circumstances of envied others and exceptionally bad circumstances of pitied others) at the cost of overlooking the smaller ups and downs of daily life, which inevitably dilute the other person’s overall experience. If so, envy and pity could involve misperceiving that envied others have lives that are uniformly wonderful (overlooking that they still face smaller annoyances) and pitied others have lives that are uniformly awful (overlooking that they still enjoy smaller pleasures). Five studies support this possibility. First, participants evaluated different peers. Consistent with focalism, the more envy and pity they felt, the more disparities they perceived (Study 1)—yet the actual everyday lives of envied and pitied others were similar (Study 2). Participants then completed various defocusing tasks designed to bring to mind others’ smaller ups and downs. This indeed reduced envy and pity (Studies 3-4a-4b-5), but pity proved harder to reduce (Studies 4b-5). These studies suggest the same underlying focalism may inflate feelings of envy and pity, with asymmetric regulation strategies: small annoyances spoil perceptions of a good life more than small pleasures enhance perceptions of a bad life.
Keywords: social judgment, focalism, everyday life, change
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