The Korea Herald


[AtoZ into Korean mind] Envy: Emotional toll triggered by social comparison

Korean culture, fostering easy comparisons, establishes elevated standards, breeds envy

By No Kyung-min

Published : March 10, 2024 - 17:08

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Koreans, particularly of younger generations, are often compared to an imaginary rival by the name of “Eomchina.”

This rival, whose name literally translates as “mom’s friend’s son,” represents an idealized peer against whom one is constantly measured in various aspects of life, from academic achievements and career success to marital status and monthly income.

“Eomchina” as a benchmark for success stems from parental comparisons and envy for the achievements of another family’s child.

This upward social comparison, especially when it involves someone in one’s own social circle, can trigger intense feelings of envy, as captured in the Korean saying: "When my cousin buys land I get a stomachache."

For Kim, in her late 20s, conversations with friends from her college days often revolve around updates on everyone’s lives, including those of friends not even present at the gatherings.

"In our middle and high school years, we were just as concerned about others' academic achievements as we were about our own," she remarked. "Even after college, our conversations continue to center on assessing where we stand in relation to our peers in terms of marriage and career advancements."

She believes this pattern is somewhat inevitable, particularly in a cutthroat society like South Korea.

Culture of social comparison

The inclination to covet the possessions or abilities of someone known personally, or through mutual acquaintances, is a phenomenon observed to varying extents across cultures.

According to psychologist Abraham Tesser in "Toward a Self-Evaluation Maintenance Model of Social Behavior," individuals tend to measure their self-esteem against close associates within a relevant domain rather than distant, unrelated individuals.

The research paper from 1988 suggests that comparing oneself to a successful close acquaintance diminishes self-evaluation in tasks deemed important for one's self.

Then why in some East Asian cultures like Korea do people show higher levels of competitiveness, fueled by mechanisms of peer pressure and envy?

Some scholars believe the key may be in the region’s agricultural heritage. The intense labor and cooperation required for rice farming, compared to the cultivation of dry-land crops like wheat, has shaped East Asian societies to be more interdependent and cohesive and have relationship-centric values, they suggest.

In research published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, sociology professor Lee Cheol-Sung of Sogang University notes that people in China and Korea tend to engage in more social comparison than others in areas associated with wheat farming, with their happiness often tied to social status.

From a contemporary perspective, psychology professor Kim Kyung-il at Ajou University says Koreans are more likely to notice differences among themselves because they tend to adhere to a standardized life trajectory in areas such as education and work.

Speaking on the Sapiens Studio YouTube channel, he said that similarities in their lives make it easier for Koreans to compare themselves with others.

Additionally, as South Korea has historically been relatively homogeneous in terms of social systems, ethnicity and culture, it often overlooks diverse ways of living and lifestyles. In defining success, only certain prescribed life paths are considered successful, imposing societal expectations for individuals to adhere to specific ways of living.

A 30-something office worker surnamed Bae believes that the cohesive forces in Korea's "we" culture are linked to a lack of respect for diversity.

"The collectivist culture seems to place less value on individuality for the greater good,” he said. “I believe that valuing diverse individuality would lead to less inclination to pit people against each other based on the similar standards for so-called 'success.'"

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Unhappy with envy

What has been challenging for many are the standards being set so high. Feeling a gut-wrenching pain upon seeing your affluent cousin indicates a sense of inferiority.

A report from the National Assembly Futures Institute highlighted the prevalent inclination among Koreans for social comparison as a contributing factor to their comparatively lower levels of happiness.

"The narrow prescription for success marginalizes those unable to achieve a particular standard," remarked Lim Myung-ho, a professor from the Department of Psychology at Dankook University. "This fosters a sense of being derailed from the supposed right path, provoking feelings of envy toward others and causing potential mental health challenges.”

The established route to success in South Korea, predominantly endorsed by older generations, revolves around materialistic or status-oriented achievements, like attending a prestigious university in Seoul and securing a position at a large corporation, often disregarding one's values and abilities.

For example, a survey conducted by NH Investment Securities' research lab in September 2022 revealed that 45.6 percent of the middle class in South Korea perceived themselves as belonging to the lower class, due to their ill-guided perception of a median lifestyle.

Their perceived threshold for middle-class status was substantially higher than the actual situation, and closer to the economic status of those in the top 10 percent of wealth in the population.

"These standards contribute to the widespread perception that many of them are lagging behind others," Lim said, suggesting this social ethos induces a feeling of deprivation.

According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare's 2022 report, the sense of relative deprivation compared to others, arising from concerns about future prospects and social alienation, is a significant factor contributing to suicidal decisions.

In contemporary contexts, the ease of comparing oneself to others on social media platforms has not only increased but has also set standards higher than necessary. Personal worth often seems to thrive on the content shared on these platforms, where only the successful facets of life are showcased.

According to Lim, the danger of social media lies in the fact that we believe what we see.

"Looking at others' successful stories on social media may foster competitiveness and evoke feelings of inadequacy and insufficiency," he said.

While addressing the societal imperative to embrace diversity, and to prevent succumbing to extreme envy leading to self-loathing, Lim emphasizes the significance of self-compassion.

"It is crucial not to harbor any feelings of inferiority by measuring oneself against the high standards society has set," Lim stated. "There is no need to conform to others' expectations. Instead, one should focus on their own vision, believing that alternative paths exist towards personal success."

He further underlined that we should simply compare ourselves to our past selves.

"A to Z into the Korean mind" traverses the complexities of the Korean psyche, examining an array of mental and emotional phenomena and their cultural nuances through keywords in alphabetical order. – Ed.