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Jealousy: Successful Tactic or Harmful Emotion?

By North Angle, Cristoni Couvrette, and Anne Mette Rasmussen

Imagine you’re sitting at home scrolling through some sort of social media platform (whether it’s Facebook, Instagram or snapchat) and you see that your significant other has been commenting (or posting) flirtatiously with his/her hot coworker. How do you feel? Most people would immediately feel a sense of possession overcome them when they see their partner’s attention focused intently on someone else. Jealousy is an extremely strong — and surprisingly old, in an evolutionary sense — emotion.

Even though modern attitudes about relationships have become significantly more flexible, jealousy is still a common part of our love lives. Whether people are swingers, friends with benefits or serial daters, jealousy is commonly found. This powerful emotion can inspire songs, strengthen a relationship or even prevent a relationship from ending. However, the same emotion has the power to cause a breakup, inspire hatred, or result in serious harm.

But why do we get jealous? In this post we’ll explore this question from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. We’ll explore the adaptive benefits of expressing jealousy, the gender differences in jealousy, and lastly the benefits and setbacks that jealousy gives romantic relationships today.

Why do we get jealous?

Jealousy for many people is recognized as an undesired emotion that can trigger unflattering and unwanted thoughts and behaviors. Although unpleasant, evolutionary psychologists hypothesize that jealousy has been a beneficial solution to the problems that our ancestors faced. More specifically, jealousy is hypothesized to be a solution to mate retention. Ancestral men and women needed to retain their mates in order to reproduce successfully.

Mate retention can be threatened in various ways, for instance mate’s infidelity or mate poachers that try to “steal” one’s mate for either a one night stand or for a long-term relationship. These threats have constituted problems for ancestral humans recurrently, which is why evolution in response has selected defenses that minimize these problems.

Jealousy is hypothesized to be an evolved adaptation that helps retain long-term mates by averting mate poachers (e.g. curtailing your partner’s contact with potential rivals and fending off rivals who show interest in your partner) and deterring mate’s infidelity (e.g. show vigilance to circumstances in which your partner might be unfaithful and furthermore increase own efforts to fulfill your partner’s desires so that he/she is less likely to cheat). Ancestral men and women that did care about or could detect threats to mate retention would have had a reproductive advantage over those who didn’t. Therefore their genes were passed down to future generations in a relatively greater frequency. Eventually, they passed down the genes associated with those traits along to modern humans. However, the specific situations that trigger jealousy are hypothesized to be different between genders.

Men and Women differ in the cues that trigger jealousy

Men and women that fail to retain their mates are faced with different problems when it comes to survival of their genes. Because of these differences, they tend to react differently towards situations that trigger jealousy. For men, there is always the risk of paternity uncertainty (not knowing whether the child is his or not). A woman, on the other hand, is 100% sure that the baby she is carrying is hers. This in turn brings up the possibility for cuckoldry –- that is, the risk of investing resources in another man’s child. Evolutionarily, cuckoldry would have posed a great cost to ancestral men, as they would have been giving up other mating opportunities in order to raise a child who wasn’t genetically related to him. Thus, men are predicted to be more sensitive to cues of sexual infidelity (when a partner pursues sexual interactions with another individual). By evolving mechanisms that are sensitive to sexual infidelity, he is protecting his ability to produce and invest resources in his own biological children.

Ancestral women, however, faced different consequences of infidelity. Because women must invest more biological resources in producing and raising children (e.g., carrying a baby to term, nursing, and so on) than men, our ancestral mothers selected male mates according to who was willing and able to invest in children in other ways.  If a woman lost her partner to infidelity, this meant that she also lost her partner’s time, attention, energy, and resources for both herself and their child(ren). The loss of his commitment would have had great implications for both her and her child(ren)’s survival. Thus, women are predicted to show a greater sensitivity to cues of emotional infidelity (when a partner forms a deep emotional connection with another individual), because this carried the risk of losing her mate’s resources to another woman.

These sex differences have been observed in a study conducted by, Buss and colleagues (1992). This study asked both men and women to choose between two very upsetting events: (a) their partner having sexual intercourse with someone else or (b) their partner falling in love with someone else. Now of course these situations are incredibly painful for both men and women, but in a “would-you-rather” situation there tends to be a common sex difference between men and women. It turned out that 60% of men found sexual infidelity more upsetting, while 83% of women found emotional infidelity more upsetting.

Not only is jealousy expressed as an emotional reaction, but it has also been shown to directly impact behavior. One study found that males responded with more anger, greater likelihood of relationship dissolution and less likelihood of forgiveness in response to sexual infidelity compared to emotional infidelity.

These sex differences are found consistently across different cultures. Buunk, Angleitner, Oubaid, and Buss (1996) found similar gender differences within the American, German, and Dutch cultures. Because values in the German and Dutch cultures de-emphasize sex differences and have more relaxed attitudes about sexuality compared to America, studies like this one provide particularly strong evidence for these sex differences being more than the result of learning, and thereby speaks strongly for the evolutionary psychological hypothesis. In short, because men and women have faced different adaptive problems caused by a mate’s infidelity (paternal uncertainty vs. diversion of resources), the sexes show differences in cues that trigger jealousy.

Jealousy: benefit or setback today?

In conclusion, jealousy is an evolved emotion that serves an important adaptive solution. Jealousy aids mate retention by causing behavioral tactics to fend off mate poachers, deter a partner’s sexual infidelity, and help retain long-term mating practices.

While too much jealousy can cause a relationship to end, or in extreme cases, even result in spousal abuse. However, jealousy is not all bad. Imagine being in a bar with your significant other. An attractive stranger approaches you, compliments your looks, and starts a conversation. There is no doubt that he/she is flirting with you. Your significant other is not bothered at all. He/she let’s you continue the conversation without interruption and might even take a seat to give you some privacy. How do you feel? Do you appreciate his/her open-mindedness or do you get upset by their lack of care? Most people feel hurt, and wish that the situation would provoke jealousy in their partner. In this case, jealousy can be very beneficial, because when shown in moderation it can be used to ensure greater commitment from a partner, increase psychological closeness and test the strength of the relationship.

Overall, jealousy is an influential emotion that can be either constructive or destructive in romantic relationships depending on how aggressively it is expressed. We should keep in mind that jealousy isn’t just a primitive feeling we’ve carried on through generations of humans; it serves to support mate retention tactics and behaviors that arise when situations such as mate poaching or a partner’s infidelity threaten to end a relationship.

Although men and women experience jealousy in different forms and for different reasons, they do share a similar goal. Ultimately, jealousy served the same purpose for our male and female ancestors alike: It helped them recognize and navigate problems in the wonderful world of mating.