Wouldn’t it be wonderful if human beings could become as excited about promoting an altruistic, benevolent society as they are for competition, self promotion and personal status? But ‘excitement’ is nature’s method of motivating animals to act in certain ways, and as a consequence of our evolved animal heritage we are far more easily excited by fear, sex, and rivalry than we are about doing good deeds for others. Seeing thousands of people enthusiastically taking to the streets to march for a good cause may appear to contradict this claim, but here too we see that much of the excitement is concerned with challenging opponents, asserting superiority over them, and associating oneself to others who we regard as being of high status.
Of course it is far better that we employ our excitable nature in protesting against wrongdoings than in doing harm ourselves, although I would propose that – rather than engaging in perpetual ‘us and them’ conflict – we concentrate our energies in creating a more ‘civilised’ world for all. This idea may sound fanciful to the extreme, but consider that the main task of such a plan would simply be to educate and inform people on areas of human psychology where a necessary understanding is severely lacking. After all, the essence of the civilisation process is to gain control over our evolved animal nature by understanding and recognising the ways in which it influences our own minds, and those of others.
The particular area of our psychology that I would target plays a key role in a hugely destructive force, from a personal level – such as bitter insecurities, despondency, spiteful resentment and aggressive pride – to the empowerment of narcissistic tyrants and fascistic ideologies, for example. These problematic characteristics stem from naturally evolved animal functions; instinctive drives concerned with competition and hierarchy, of which ‘envy’ is an all too prominent feature. From the following list we can see that what we call ‘envy’ is indeed an evolved, motivational mechanism:
- ‘Envy’ is universal among human societies
- ‘Envy’ is both excitable and compulsive
- The focus of ‘envy’ is generally a perceived rival of the same sex
- We observe other animal species to act in ways which in humans we would regard as ‘envious’ behaviour
- ‘Envious’ behaviour in humans directly corresponds with ways in which animal systems of competition and hierarchy operate
It may seem bizarre then – with all our advancements in science and culture – that this basic understanding of such a crucial component of the human mind is not recognised by the field of psychology in general. Instead we have a situation where renowned psychologists, psychotherapists, sociologists and philosophers will sooner choose to indulge in bogus, unsupported theory than veer from their establishment doctrine when addressing the topic of ‘envy’. The very institutions which should helping us to transcend these pernicious instinctive influences are actually blocking the way. Surely the study of ‘envy’ and related conditions – narcissistic ‘disorders’, status obsession, ‘jealousy’ etc. – should be given the attention and resources it deserves? How can it be that our modern world continues to retain such a medieval view of something which is clearly the cause of unimaginable suffering worldwide?
Even our current understanding of how ‘envy’ works on the mind could already deliver a huge civilising influence, as furthering this insight would enable people to further recognise and avoid these pernicious influences within themselves, and in others around them. Self-indulgent behaviours previously seen as strictly human sensibilities, could be exposed as the instinctive, animal functioning they regularly are. We have the knowledge to identify and rationalise our compulsive drives to gain personal status, and our desires to assert it – and also to understand why this leads to unrealistic expectations and frustrations. An awareness of the malignant, misguiding aspects of our culture – as within advertising or ‘fashion’ – which feed on and inflame our innate envious dispositions can, and should be commonplace across all of society. But although it may be clearly evident that we are sufficiently equipped to get such a civilising process rolling, here again ‘awareness’ is key.