The Instagram effect: How the psychology of envy drives consumerism
Editor's note: This article is part of "The Ten Today," a series that examines the Ten Commandments in modern society. This story explores the tenth commandment: "Thou shalt not covet."
It's hard to say how many hours a week Erin Wilson spends on social media. She's on Twitter, Facebook and a sprinkling of online dating apps, but her favorite is the photo-sharing social network app Instagram.
Wilson, a professional stage actress and singer, leads what looks like a glamorous life traveling with Broadway shows like "Wicked" and "Sister Act," and she has two Instagram accounts: a personal account that documents her everyday life performing or living in New York City, and one that chronicles her home shopping trips. The second, which goes by the Instagram handle homegoodsobsessed, has 4,000 followers. She is in the process of launching a third account, prettyeasyco, for hair and makeup tips.
Wilson is a savvy user of social media, but she's a consumer, too. She just bought a trendy crochet swimsuit, for example, that she saw on Nordstrom.com. It wasn't the marketing that sold her, but it was seeing the image again and again on Pinterest and Instagram.
"You see it once and you think, 'That's cute.' It's seeing it repeatedly, and on people whose life looks desirable, that puts you over into 'I have to have that,'" she said.
There's a term for this. Social psychologists, journalists and social-media users call it "lifestyle envy," or Instagram envy, and savvy smartphone users are well-acquainted with its tell-tale sign: the little pang you get when a friend posts photos from his or her swanky vacation in Istanbul, or when actress Mindy Kaling snaps her newest pair of spike-toe Christian Louboutain pumps.
Envy has long been a concern of civilization, mentioned in the Ten Commandments, the seven deadly sins and countless other works down to present day America, in which the newest iteration, social media envy, is driving consumerism in new ways. According to a study by New York marketing communications firm JWT, fame and fortune are currently replacing faith and family as the core of the American Dream. Two-thirds of Americans in the study said traditional notions of the ideal life — community, religious faith and middle-class values — have shifted.
"More Americans see the ability to spend — whether by accumulating wealth or accessing credit — as a component of the American Dream," the study indicates. Also, 58 percent of respondents said "becoming wealthy" is key to the American Dream for them personally; 54 percent said "social recognition and status" were a big part of it for people today. A quarter said a big part of the dream for them was "becoming famous." Traditional ideals of the good life such as "getting married" and "attending religious services" were more likely to be categorized as part of a past definition of the American Dream than the present one.
Instagram alone, which became a social media phenomenon by allowing people to transform ordinary photos into magazine-shoot images with fancy filters and then share them with others, grew last year from 80 million to 150 million users worldwide. Are Americans becoming coveting, keeping-up-with-the-Jones consumers one perfectly filtered post at a time?
People are inspired by comparing themselves to peers through social media and that is why they feel a little lift when they see an image of a friend triumphantly crossing a finish line or a co-worker's twins happily hugging. But people also become hyper-aware of the achievements and success of those peers, said Ann Mack, director of trendspotting at JWT Worldwide. Thus cuts the double-edged sword of social media.
Traditional advertising is losing some of its power over consumers who instead look to each other for trends and opinions, she said.
"If you think about 100 years ago, people would go to the town dance and see what the Jones' are doing. This comparison has always been around," Wilson said. "But now you can do it on an extreme scale. You can compare yourself to thousands of people."
And it's not just celebrities that people are comparing themselves to — it's each other as well.
Not only that, but Twitter and Facebook have brought down the wall that separated actors, musicians and athletes from the rest of the world. Now anyone can see even more closely the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Sometimes, social media blurs the lines between peers and stars, Wilson said, because people are able to package their lives on social media as though we were celebrities.
"Instagram makes our peers' lives look glamorous, but almost attainable. If Beyonce has something that's one thing, but if a friend does, it's almost in reach — or feels like it should be," Wilson said.
The term for this kind of comparison is "relative deprivation," a sociological term that refers to the dissatisfaction that people feels when they compare their 3-year-old's Buzz Lightyear birthday, for example, to their friend's party with letter-pressed invitations, homemade cupcakes and customized muslin juice box bags all captured by a professional photographer.
It doesn't matter that these are middle-class problems. People compare their positions to others and grasp that they have less, said Mack: "Social media is bringing us closer to the upper echelons yet simultaneously back down to reality."
Susan T. Fiske, social psychology professor at Princeton University and author of "Envy Up, Scorn Down: How Status Divides Us," said envied groups include high-status people, such as the rich and wealthy entrepreneurs. Studies find that people deem them competent, but "not on our side," and therefore "cold and exploitative."
Fiske has studied envy-using brain scans, and in one of her favorite experiments, subjects watch images of investment bankers encountering bad luck (such as stepping in gum, or getting splashed by a car), and they smile. This Schadenfreude (malicious glee) "activates the reward areas of the brain," according to Fiske, when subjects see envied others receive bad outcomes.
Comparison — to co-workers, neighbors, friends or social media contacts — is part of human nature, said Fiske. People need to know where they stand in social hierarchies and the best way to do it is by gleaning that information from peers. Traditionally, envy has played a different role in American culture because of the American Dream and the notion that everyone has equal access to success and opportunity, she said.
"If you work hard enough and keep your nose clean you will advance. That's part of our American culture," said Fiske, but because of her research she now thinks attitudes about envy may be changing in the U.S.
"Everyone likes to think that they are middle-class, but that simply isn't true anymore," she said. In fact, about one-third of people move up in social class in their lifetimes, while one-third stay where they are at and one-third move down.
Americans are becoming aware of social inequality, and it can pique envy, Fiske said.
"Until Occupy Wall Street, we had a tendency to deny social class — before, it was only sociologists that would acknowledge it," Fiske said. "Now people realize that the middle-class is shrinking, and (their) share of wealth is shrinking."
Marcia Reynolds had a compulsive need for a bigger house. She moved again and again, she acknowledges now, despite living in a number of great homes.
Reynolds finds she falls victim to envy like anyone else, even though she's an expert on the subject. She's a psychologist and author of "Outsmart Your Brain," and has explored the topic of jealousy and competition.
"It is amazing, globally, the awareness of having to have the best," Reynolds said. "It'll kill you moneywise unless you have an endless stream — but then psychologically there's always going to be someone who has more and looks better. So when does it end?
"If I'm saying, 'I need to have that,' or 'Why should other people have that and not me,' then on the flip side that means if I don't have that I'm not good enough," Reynolds said. "We start really devaluing ourselves in the process."
Andrea Mouritsen is a blogger turned Instagrammer. She loves the quick hit of feedback and keeping in touch with friends and family. What she doesn't love is the consumerism, especially "blog swag," or the free stuff that bloggers get and then post to social media.
"There's a photo of them pushing an $1,800 stroller while a professional photographer follows them," she said. "It feels very staged."
Still, it's easy to be affected by it, she said: "Suddenly, I feel like my stroller is a piece of crap, and it puts me in a state of annoyance."
She knows that logically those people couldn't afford those things if they didn't get them for free, but she has stopped following those kinds of feeds.
"I clicked away feeling a little down," she said. "So now I like to find things that are uplifting, or make me think, or make me happy."
Part of the allure of the Instagram image is that it purports to represent a person's "real" life. Wilson, who artfully curates her own photos, has to remind herself it's still manufactured.
She offers an Instagram image that she just posted on her phone. It's a photo of half her face; her eyes are lined in black, her eyebrows arched and her lips pop in a perfect movie-star red.
"In editing, this is what I ended up with," she said. "Could I sell this red lipstick to anybody? Yes. Is that legitimately 100 percent what it looks like? No. It's touched up. It's an ideal. You're giving somebody something to aspire to. That's an immediate sell."
The seeming ease with which people can acquire beauty, a perfectly styled home or even fame and success becomes skewed, said Jean Twenge, author of "Generation Me" and a professor of psychology who noticed that the 20-somethings in her undergraduate classes were inundated with messages about self-esteem. Young people in particular grew up with the idea that people like Justin Bieber get famous over YouTube, and there's a feeling that anyone can be famous in a moment, she said.
"I amend that phrase, 'You can be anything you want to be,'" Twenge said. "You can be anything you want to be as long as you have the talent, you work really hard and you get some luck along the way. It's not as pithy, but it's a lot more accurate."
On the upside, aspirational thinking helps counterbalance the disheartening economic realities that young people face, Mack said. They have an entrepreneurial mindset facilitated by technology. YouTube and Twitter spread original, creative ideas quickly, and if a person has a good business idea, they can get it funded on Kickstarter.
Wilson turned her Internet shopping habits into a business idea. She had just come off a bad breakup, and she poured herself into furnishing her apartment. She checked sale sites for home goods daily, but there was a time where she had to hit the brakes. I said to myself, "You have enough. You're done. You don't need it — this is becoming obsessive."
She realized that she could use the shopping impulse to chronicle products that she loves on Instagram and share them with other people. Not only is her Home Goods feed — which features discounted and sale products — popular with other would-be buyers, but it satisfies that acquisition craving: "I wouldn't think of it as coveting, but I guess that's what it is," she said.
But someone doesn't have to actually buy things to scratch that itch, she said. Most of the fun is in the looking. Half the time, she finds herself sending back things she bought. Now her Instagram feed allows her to "collect" the things that she wants without opening her wallet.
She thinks of it as a service, not another envy-inducing feed of beautiful, unattainable objects.
"Looking at pretty things on the Internet doesn't have to be a bad thing," she said. "It can inspire you."
Likewise, Fiske said emotions like envy and scorn are adaptive, evolved responses, but people can control them. If a peer wins a prize, some people can interpret it as being bad for them, or it can be interpreted as good for the group, she said.
She's hopeful that envy can be used for good if people adopt "benign envy," or being inspired by someone's example: "Comparison becomes a problem when we forget that we're all in this together," she said.