The Monkey Experiment and Envy

Here’s another ‘late to the party’ discovery of mine you might find super interesting.

In 2013, a Dutch primatologist and ethologist, Frans de Waal, stood on the TED stage and presented his findings on one amusing experiment.

The experiment was conducted on two monkeys.

Which, of course, went viral.

And, not surprisingly, I’ve only run into it today (I can’t be the only one?!).

You can see the clip below but here’s how it went.

The researchers plucked out two friendly monkeys from their natural habitat and put them into each of two cages side by side.

They then train them to do a small task, handing a stone over to the researcher standing in front of the cage.

They do this by rewarding them with cucumber each time they complete the task which they’ve happily carried out.

The researcher then changes the reward.

She gives grape to the second monkey

(Monkeys like grape more than cucumber.) 

Seeing this, the first monkey, happy and content with the task and reward till then, hurls cucumber back at the researcher!

How interesting.

It shows how our very distant cousins respond to inequality.

They act just like us.

With anger and frustration.

The first monkey throws a tantrum clearly distressed and unhappy about unfairness.

If monkeys with less cognitive abilities than humans exhibit such instinctive response to inequality, perhaps it’s not so outrageous to assume certain things we humans feel and do is embedded into our DNA.

Maybe that’s why we care how much our colleagues earn, what she does for a living, what car she drives or even how many followers she has on her Instagram.

Two Monkeys Were Paid Unequally: Excerpt from Frans de Waal's TED Talk

Is Something Better Not Knowing?

Let’s say you started working for a company along with four other colleagues.

All started on the same day, same office and same department.

It’s your dream job.

You’re extremely happy with your role, salary, responsibilities, working hours, people and everything.

6 months into the role, you find out that the rest of the team earn more than you do.

They’ve earned more from Day 1.

Suddenly, the equilibrium of your happiness factors is punctured.

Now you’re livid by injustice.

If you think about it, nothing has changed.

You work the same job. The one you thought perfect for the past 6 months.

But the moment you learn how unequally you’re treated compared to others, it becomes humanly impossible not to be affected by it.

Clearly, this arbitrary scenario has a fundamental inequality issue.

Not something you’d want to brush off as better not knowing once you’ve discovered.

And it makes me think about how the human mind works.

That is…

We’re More Envious of Those Close to Us

You wouldn’t care about what people in other departments earn as much you do about those working in the same cubicle.

You wouldn’t be so envious of Kim Kardashian’s relationship as much you are of your best friend who’s being treated like a queen by her boyfriend. Every day.

Jeff Benzos’s Wealth will unlikely cause you unhappiness but your neighbours’ flashy car does.

You’ll likely be bothered by a couple of hundreds of more followers on your friend’s Instagram than the million followers on Taylor Swift’s Instagram.

Should We Feel Ashamed of Envy?

It feels like envy is a bad thing: it’s a morally wrong thing to allow.

It’s one of the seven deadly sins, after all.

But let’s be honest.

Most sane people do exhibit this inevitable emotion every now and then.

Even the monkey does.


It’s in our DNA.

So when you feel envious of your BFF, don’t feel too bad or ashamed. You’re being normal.

It only becomes an issue if you become obsessed, following her Instagram around the clock and start losing sleep over the colour of lipstick she’s wearing.

Two questions you want to ask yourself are:

  • How intensely do I feel it?
  • In what way do I respond to it?

Two Paths of Envy

The solution seems straightforward.

Disconnect the internet and proceed to become a hermit.

Hey, you no longer have anyone to compare yourself to. Problem solved, right?


Whether we like it or not, we’re social creatures.

And there’re more gains from social interactions than the grief caused by this small matter of envy. 

So we can go about it in two ways.

One: we use it as a healthy motivation to improve us. The other: sulk, do nothing and wait until it explodes with bad consequences.

But we are not interested in the second option, are we?

5 People – the Right Ones

Jim Rohn said:

You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.

Confucius echoed something similar:

If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room.

Gather up the five people around you (in your throughs, of course) and assess common denominators in the group.

How do they carry themselves, how do they talk, what do they talk about, what are they aspired to achieve or how do they spend time and money? 

Do you feel envy towards them?

If you’re surrounded by the right people, you’ll feel uplifted with their presence, abundant energy, intelligence and life ambitions.

They’re the source of inspiration and healthy envy that motivates you to work on your continuous self-improvement.

All five people including you are humble, open-minded and eager to grow with the right balance of competition and envy towards one another.

Don’t Forget The Unfortunate

While building a good network of people who’ll challenge you in a positive way, don’t forget the unfortunate who have it worse than you.

Trust me: they’re everywhere.

The homeless sleeping rough in bitingly chilly nights, people who’re struck by a natural disaster and lost everything, people who’re dealt with a random card like cancer at the peak of her career…

Remind yourself things can always be worse and start counting your blessing.

You’ll avoid excessive envy, embrace a healthy dose of it and use envy as motivation.

Final Thoughts

Every human emotion has two sides to it.

Just like food and drink, envy in moderation can provide the necessary energy to level up ourselves.

Be mindful of people you surround yourself with and be grateful for all the things that you have.

With the right attitude, you can use envy in a positive way to motivate yourself and improve your life.  

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