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Jealous? Maybe It's Genetic. Maybe Not.

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    NHNE News List Current Members: 765 Subscribe/unsubscribe/archive info at the bottom of this message. ... JEALOUS? MAYBE IT S GENETIC. MAYBE NOT. By Erica
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 9, 2002
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      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
      without resources.

      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
      upsetting choice.

      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
      sexual infidelity.

      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.
      DeSteno said.

      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
      evolutionary psychology.

      "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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