Jealous? Maybe It's Genetic. Maybe Not.
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JEALOUS? MAYBE IT'S GENETIC. MAYBE NOT.
By Erica Goode
New York Times
Tuesday, October 8, 2002
Jealousy, according to evolutionary psychologists, evolved a million or so
years ago on the African plain, where life was no picnic.
Out there on the savanna, a man had to constantly guard against cuckoldry,
lest he squander his resources, unwittingly feeding that hard-earned leg of
mastodon to some other guy's progeny.
Women had other things to worry about, like keeping the meat coming in.
Sure, it bothered them if their men indulged in a little hanky-panky by the
watering hole. But the real threat was if a man became emotionally attached
to another woman: who would bring home the mastodon then?
At least, that's the theory advanced by evolutionary psychologists, who in
the last decade have ushered Darwinian theory into new and provocative
areas, including the relationship between the sexes. As a result of such
differing survival pressures long ago, they maintain, the brains of modern
men and women are programmed to respond differently to the infidelity of a
romantic partner. Men become more jealous over sexual infidelity, a strategy
that worked pretty well in the Stone Age, promoting reproductive success.
Women are more distressed by emotional betrayal, which could leave them
It is an appealing argument in a society where men are considered to be from
Mars and women from Venus, and one that has gained substantial purchase
among evolutionary scientists and in popular literature. It is also
supported by a variety of studies finding evidence for such a sex
difference, many of them carried out by Dr. David M. Buss, an evolutionary
psychologist at the University of Texas, and his colleagues.
"Men and women may be equally jealous, but the events that trigger jealousy
differ," Dr. Buss wrote in "The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is as
Necessary as Love and Hate."
Other scholars have not been so convinced. They have argued that it is more
likely that differences between men and women that evolutionary
psychologists attribute to natural selection -- like the tendency of men to
be polygamous and women, monogamous -- are the product of cultures, not
evolution. Jealousy is probably no exception.
So the nature-nurture debate has continued over the years.
But two new research papers take a different tack. They do not dispute that
evolution plays a role in shaping human behavior. But they question the
evidence assembled by Dr. Buss and others for the notion that jealousy
evolved differently in men and in women.
In one paper, to appear in the November issue of The Journal of Personality
and Social Psychology, researchers led by Dr. David DeSteno, a psychologist
at Northeastern University, assert that the sex difference revealed in many
studies of jealousy by evolutionary psychologists is spurious, an artifact
of the particular method used in those studies.
They suggest that, rather than representing a hard-wired psychological
mechanism for promoting reproduction, jealousy could have evolved in each
sex for some more general purpose -- for example, protecting social bonds in
a very social species.
"I'm very sympathetic to the evolutionary view," Dr. DeSteno said. "I think
it's ridiculous to assume that the human mind was not subject to the
evolutionary chisel. But I think there can be numerous evolutionary
arguments for how specific social behaviors develop."
Dr. DeSteno and his colleagues -- Monica Y. Bartlett and Julia Braverman of
Northeastern and Dr. Peter Salovey of Yale -- say the problem with many of
the studies conducted by Dr. Buss and other investigators is that they all
use the same technique: the subjects are asked to call to mind a serious
committed relationship that they had, that they now have or that they would
like to have.
They are then presented with two forms of infidelity -- one sexual, one
emotional -- and asked which they would find most distressing. (Dr. Buss
calls this method "Sophie's Choice," referring to the book and movie in
which the title character must choose which of her children will be killed.
Other psychologists call it "forced choice.")
Using this method, virtually every study has found a difference between the
sexes, with women being more likely to pick emotional infidelity as the most
But Dr. DeSteno and his colleagues conducted their own studies, adding other
ways of measuring jealousy, for instance, asking the 111 subjects,
undergraduates at Northeastern, to rate on a seven-point scale how upset
they would be about each form of infidelity in turn, rather than having them
choose between the two forms presented together.
When such other methods were used, the researchers found, the gap between
men and women disappeared; both sexes said they were more disturbed by
They then investigated further, to determine the reason for the discrepancy
between the techniques.
"It's very strange from an evolutionary perspective why the sex difference
would only occur" in the forced-choice situation and not in others, Dr.
One possibility, the researchers reasoned, was that instead of eliciting an
automatic, preprogrammed response to infidelity -- the kind one would expect
from a mechanism designed by evolution -- the forced-choice method sent the
subjects into a more complex intellectual decision-making process, in which
they weighed the trade-offs between the two unpleasant alternatives.
To test this hypothesis, the researchers conducted another study, in which
half the subjects filled out a questionnaire asking, among other things,
whether they would be more upset if a romantic partner "had passionate sex
with someone else" or "formed a deep emotional bond to someone else." The
other subjects were given the same task, but they were asked to
simultaneously remember a string of numbers while answering the questions --
a twist the researchers hoped would eliminate the possibility of complicated
reasoning, forcing an automatic response.
The researchers found that among the subjects who completed the
questionnaire free from distraction, the usual sex difference appeared, with
more women choosing emotional infidelity. But among the subjects who had to
remember the numbers, there was no sex difference; women, as well as men,
identified sexual infidelity as the most upsetting.
"The fact that women's responses on the forced-choice measure mirrored those
of men argues forcefully against the existence of innate sex differences,"
the researchers wrote.
Dr. Buss, however, said he failed to find the new research convincing. Dr.
DeSteno and his colleagues, Dr. Buss said, had distorted the claims of
"These authors take a kind of rigid, robotic, stereotypic and false
depiction of the evolutionary hypothesis and then show that those robotic
depictions are wrong," Dr. Buss said. "I could develop any number of
contexts in which you could make the sex differences in jealousy disappear;
the fact that you could create a laboratory experiment in which you do so
is, in my view, a meaningless and trivial demonstration."
Besides, he added, a smaller study, published this year, found sex
differences even when methods other than forced-choice were used to
determine preferences. Dr. Todd Shackelford, an associate professor of
psychology at Florida Atlantic University and a former student of Dr. Buss,
also had objections.
"I guess, to state it plainly, I think the paper is in large part
ludicrous," he said. "It's clear to me that they have an agenda they're
Yet in an extensive critique, to be published next year in the journal
Personality and Social Psychology Review, Dr. Christine R. Harris, a
psychologist and research scientist at the University of California at San
Diego, says Dr. DeSteno and his colleagues have identified only one of many
serious flaws in the case for evolved sex differences in jealousy.
"The evidence supporting this theory is far less conclusive than is often
maintained," Dr. Harris said.
For example, she pointed out that the forced-choice studies of jealousy have
found differences between American and European men as large as those
between American men and women. And in some Asian cultures, the disparity is
even larger: only 25 percent of Chinese men, for example, chose sexual
infidelity as more distressing in one study; 75 percent picked emotional
Such findings, Dr. Harris wrote, seem "quite problematic" to a theory that
posits an evolutionarily evolved mechanism operative in most, if not all,
humans, while the results are compatible with the idea that culture
influences the jealous responses of men and women.
Another difficulty, she continued, is that some studies examining real
instances of unfaithfulness -- as opposed to the imagined infidelity of
college students and other laboratory subjects -- found very different
patterns of results.
In one study, involving adults living in sexually open marriages, for
example, more women than men reported being bothered by the thought of their
mate's engaging in sexual intercourse with another person, Dr. Harris said.
Another study found that both men and women dwelled more on the sexual side
of a mate's infidelity than the emotional aspects.
Dr. Harris also takes on the finding, reported in the 1980's by evolutionary
psychologists like Dr. Martin Daly and Dr. Margo Wilson at McMasters
University in Ontario, that men are far more likely than women to kill their
spouses out of sexual jealousy. Men, Dr. Harris pointed out, are more likely
to be the perpetrators in all forms of violent crime. When the proportion of
homicides involving jealousy is considered, rather than the absolute number
of such acts, women are just as likely to kill out of jealousy as men are.
Perhaps predictably, such arguments are unlikely to put an end to the
continuing debate over evolution's role in shaping jealous passion.
Dr. Shackelford waved away Dr. Harris's critique and the criticisms made by
other researchers as misguided forays intended "to cater to the muddled
masses of mainstream psychology."
Dr. Buss, for his part, offered the verbal equivalent of a shrug.
"People have always been resistant to evolution," he said. "We're in the
midst of a scientific revolution in the field of psychology."
"It took 400 years for the Catholic church to forgive Galileo," he added.
"Will it take longer for this? I don't know, but it's going to happen."
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