|Occupy Wall Street: The Neuroeconomics of Confusing Envy and Jealousy|
Occupy Wall Street began on September 17, 2011 in Liberty Square in Manhattan’s Financial District. It quickly spread to over 100 cities in the United States. This “people’s assembly” purports to represent the 99% of people opposing the 1% who get everything and take away from the majority.
These philosophers of Zuccotti Park, the 99%, feel held back by the 1%, as if the 1% has taken away what is rightfully theirs: jobs, houses, even medical care. From the official website OccupyWallSt.org, “We are getting nothing while the other 1% is getting everything.”
The Occupy Wall Street Group seems to have envy and jealousy confused. They are responding to their envy as if it were jealousy – as if people who had been successful in business have actually taken things away from them – rather than contributed to our chosen capitalist system.
Envy: the discontent and longing from a strong desire to possess qualities or belongings of another.
Jealousy: resentment or bitterness that someone has, or threatens to take away from you, something or someone you value.
If we label something incorrectly, we will then boot up the wrong map to navigate. If someone feels guilty in saying “No” it creates a different mindset than “No” simply meaning “I’m taking care of myself now and I have different priorities.”
The possibilities of success and wealth have been central in the formation of this country to work hard, acquire, and create a better life. Envy of the wealthy is both ubiquitous and motivating. Remember that there are lots of jobs available, jobs that go begging, but not perhaps what the unemployed ideally would like – or feel entitled – to do. Envy fuels the statistic that 19% of people believe they’re in the upper 1% of income.
A story can take on a life of its own. The credit card company that agreed to loan money on the holder’s word to pay it back suddenly reminds that a deal is a deal. The framework shifts from a broken promise to the debtors casting themselves as victims of the credit card company’s demand, threat, and power to decrease a credit score. The credit card company is personified with malevolent intent in the same way that corporations are perceived to generate mass injustice and inequity by successfully pursuing business and profits. Those who have had their homes taken away defaulted on their word to repay the debt of money that was loaned to them in good faith to purchase a home for their families.
These software programs of the mind that misperceive envy and jealousy then misattribute motivation to activate a part of the brain that furthers the story. When people feel they’re being treated unfairly, a portion of the midbrain called the anterior insula lights up and overwhelms the logical considerations of the prefrontal cortex. This is the same kind of disgust that people have when they encounter a rotten apple.
Making an example of people such as Ken Lay, Stanford, and other executives for their crimes does not work and will not work. If it would be sufficient, Ponzi would have been the last necessary lesson. To make an example is an abstraction is not how the emotional brain works. Actually, when something bad happens to someone we envy, the result is that we may feel good. Neuroscientists have shown that news of the downfall and humiliation of the rich and famous activates the dorsal anterior singular cortex of the brain – the region of the brain that responds to conflict and social rejection. In fact, the study showed that the more we envy someone, the greater the pleasure at his or her downfall (or perp walk).
My stretch goals are to spend March of each year skiing in Steamboat Springs, and each August writing on the coast of Maine. At certain moments, I may be a bit envious of those who can do both without hesitation. But I can always work smarter and dissolve my hesitation. See you at Steamboat.