Just ‘like’ me: Envy in young women fuelled by social media

Macquarie University/The Lighthouse
A Macquarie University study reveals how envy can be manipulated and reveals a disturbing insight into how social media users see themselves.

Unhealthy measures of self-worth, harmful body image issues, pointless competition, preying on the impressionable. Combining social media and envy can be a recipe for disaster.

Pressure: Many women told the researchers that likes and comments they get on their social media posts were a barometer for their self-worth.

The long-suspected fraught nature of the relationship between young women and social media has been confirmed by research conducted by Lawrence Ang, recently-retired Associate Professor in Business, Department of Marketing at Macquarie Business School, and his then-PhD student, now Dr Camille Singh.

The research, which involved online surveys and interviews of 335 female Facebook users aged 18–25 years, investigated the effects of envy on purchase intent.

“The main condition required for envy is upward social comparison, whereby you perceive someone is superior to yourself,” says Singh. “People tend to compare themselves with those similar to them, especially friends and peers.

They stalk these people (aka ‘frenemies’) partly because they are interested in their lives and partly in the hope of seeing them fail.

“Many women told us the number of likes and comments they get on their social media posts were a barometer for their self-worth. They are very engaged with how they are perceived. There is also a lot of pressure to keep up with what they see on social media.”

In the age of social media, consumers are constantly exposed to idealistic images of others, arousing social emotions, such as envy. The research investigated the effects of envy on purchase intent and studied female Facebook users aged 18–25 years.

“We found the effects of envy-inducing imagery was most effective for body-related products,” says Singh. “If you look at evolutionary psychology, females put high value on their physical attractiveness and the way they look and clothes are a way you put your attractiveness on display.

“As a generalisation, women are more suggestable and impressionable because they are more social than men. Women talk a lot more. They share a lot more.

“We found they also engage with – and follow – people they don’t like just to see what they’re up to. They stalk these people (aka ‘frenemies’) partly because they are interested in their lives and partly in the hope of seeing them fail.”

Social media amplifies envy

Ang notes that while social media didn’t invent envy, it does heighten personal comparisons.

“Our culture values how people look and social media is a very visual medium,” he says.

“Forty-four per cent of women aged between 18 and 25 reported feeling envy within the previous seven days from watching social media. This was mostly due to appearance and body image issues.

“The worst thing about this is that the images to which young women are comparing themselves are not real. They are curated. These ‘ideal’ images are used for marketing purposes to create a following.

“For young women suffering from self-image issues or existing mental health problems, social media is likely to make them more depressed. Cosmetic surgeries are rising because of social media and this makes me more depressed.”

The language of envy

The research notes that there are broadly two types of envy, which can be a challenge as the English language has only one word for both. Other cultures and languages understand that envy is more nuanced.

Bad influence: Forty-four per cent of women aged 18- 25 who were surveyed said they felt jealous after being on social media.

“In English, envy is always perceived as a negative,” says Singh. “But this is not always so when it comes to buying intentions.

“In our study of the effects of envy, we looked at two subtypes – benign envy and malicious envy – and found they trigger vastly different behavioural actions.

“Benign envy is actually inspiring and engenders a positive attitude. You perceive the ‘envied’ person to be deserving of their good fortune and associating with them stimulates pride.

“Malicious envy is the opposite. It is seen as showing off. This person doesn’t deserve their success – or body – and you want to pull them down or see them fail. In this case English borrows the German word ‘schadenfreude’.”

To test the difference between benign envy and malicious envy, Ang and Singh asked the 335 interview subjects to gauge their attitudes – and their subsequent willingness to buy – a crop top presented in two different ways.

They created a profile and photo of a young, good-looking, female university student wearing the crop top they wanted to sell. All the parameters were the same except for the captions they attached to the photo.

To elicit benign envy, the caption said the model had achieved her attractive body by exercise and a healthy diet. She was perceived as deserving.

To elicit malicious envy, the caption specified the model had achieved her attractive body through liposuction. She was perceived as undeserving.

“Crucially for marketers and advertisers, the ‘deserving’ model was far more persuasive and generated significantly more intentions to buy the crop top,” says Singh.

Associate Professor Lawrence Ang is a recently retired researcher in the Macquarie Business School.

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