The lesson of “Richard Cory”

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

─ Edwin Arlington Robinson, “Richard Cory”

People do not always admit to comparison with friends, family, and colleagues, but we all do it. To be sure, people differ in their proclivity, but comparison is pervasive. People compare to evaluate themselves, to improve their standing, and to enhance their self-esteem (e.g., Taylor amp; Lobel, 1989; Wood, 1989).

If comparison contaminates, envy and scorn are worse, but for better reasons. Comparison at least can be adaptive, providing information and motivation, but the feelings that follow can be poisonous. Envy says, “I wish I had what you have,” but it implies “And I wish you did not have it.”

Comparison emotions can corrupt the comparer. Envy humiliates and angers people (see Smith, 2008, for recently collected research). Feeling below someone makes people feel ashamed at their own inadequacy. If a peer can succeed, then people feel inadequate for not doing equally well. Envy also makes people angry at the injustice of their low-status positions. Those who succeeded must have had unfair advantages. Envy correlates with depression, unhappiness, and low self-esteem.

─ Susan T. Fiske, excerpt from “Envy up, scorn down: How comparison divides us.”
(American Psychologist, Vol 65(8), Nov 2010, 698-706)
(http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3825032/)

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