Jealousy – Evolutionary advantages, the dangerous passion and sexual differences.

     Most of us have experienced jealousy in some form at some point in our lives. When is strikes us, we experience an eruption of emotions and don’t really know how to act; we just know that we experience distress. This blog will raise the questions, do we experience this emotion similarly, is there a difference between sexes and is there a purpose to jealousy. Moreover, this post will evaluate whether this emotion is related to culture or an innate emotion we all share.

     For a better understanding, a scientific definition of jealousy is appropriate to separate jealousy from envy. Buss & Haselton (2005) define jealousy as,

     “Jealousy is an emotion designed to alert an individual to threats to a valued relationship, (…) is activated by the presence of interested and more desirable intra-sexual rivals, and functions, in part, as a motivational mechanism with behavioral output designed to deter ‘the dual specters of infidelity and abandonment”. From this we can see that jealousy is connected with relationships, but different aspects of relationships are more important to men and women.

     Looking at jealousy from the evolutionary perspective, women would find emotional infidelity more upsetting and distressing more than sexual infidelity whilst men are expected to report the opposite (Buss, 2000). This is because a woman’s sexual infidelity jeopardized a man’s chances reproduction and he’d risk spending years raising another man’s children. Women however have the certainty that they are raising their own child. However, the problem women faced were the loss of a partner’s emotional commitment from which would secure her with resources and would provide security for her and her child, increasing their chances of survival.

     Because of internal fertilization the female is put at risk during pregnancy, so an emotional bond between spouses secures a man’s presence during pregnancy. This suggests that jealousy is an adaption that has been carried over generations to increase the emotional commitment between mates (Buss, 2005). Jealousy would therefore be innate and fundamentally different between the sexes and is predominately present for natural selection. Harris, (2003) argues that men and women have developed different sexual strategies and would experience jealousy differently.

     This supports the heritability of jealousy and that it’s innate in most humans and we would experience jealousy differently as infidelity brings different costs to each sex. This could also mean that there are different triggers to jealousy in each sex, which suggests that there are physiological differences in the brain programmed to pick up on different signals of infidelity.

     However, plenty of studies show that there is no specific sex-bound jealousy mechanism in the brain (DeSteno & Salovey, 1996). Moreover, Sheppard et al. (1995) found that both sexes rate different kinds of infidelity similar (sex without emotional betrayal and emotion without sex). On an average, it has been found that men and women both report emotional infidelity as much worse than sexual infidelity (Sheets& Wolfe, 2001). Furthermore, when asked how they feel over a mate’s sexual relationship with another, men did not display higher ratings of jealousy than women (Harris,2003; Buunk & Hupka, 1987). These findings thereby disprove the evolutionary argument of an innate sex-bound jealousy mechanism.

     In later research, Harris (2002) argues that both sexes are more distressed by sexual infidelity and found in her study (Harris, 2002b) that both men and women reported that their upset would be greater over a mate’s one-night affair than upset over a comparable emotional betrayal. According to Buss and evolution theorists, this situation would be much more distressing for men than for women, however that was not the results of the study. Showing that there is not one single jealousy module active in each sex. The same scenario as in Harris’ study (2002b) have been replicated a number of times by different researcher (Wiederman & Allgeier, 1993; DeSteno et al. 2002; Shackelford, LeBlanc, and Drass, 2000). The results from their studies support that both sexes believe that sexual infidelity is worse than emotion, however women report greater anger and hurt than men did, also when rating emotional infidelity (Harris, 2003).
     Evolutionary- and Physiological psychologists appear to be on different sides of this argument; they agree that there is a difference and different triggers, however little difference between sexual- or emotional infidelity. It seems, as we are not so difference in our reactions to infidelity after all. Newer research contradicts older studies and has led to a paradigm change in how we look at jealousy. This could mean that jealousy was an evolutionary trait that have now changed due to societies development that we no longer live in smaller packs, but in big cities and there’s a greater chance of finding a new partner. However, further reading into cultural differences is required to establish this hypothesis and may be a topic for next blog.




Buss, M.D., Haselton, M. (2005). The evolution of jealousy.

Buss, D. M., Larsen, R. J., Westen, D., & Semmelroth, J. (1992). Sex differences in jealousy: Evolution, physiology, and psychology. Psychological science, 3(4), 251-255.

Buss, M. D. (2000). The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Lave and Sex. 1-18. ISBN 0-684-85081-8.

Buunk, B., & Hupka, R. B. (1987). Cross‐cultural differences in the elicitation of sexual jealousy. Journal of Sex Research, 23(1), 12-22.

DeSteno, D., Bartlett, M., Braverman, J., &  Salovey, P. (2002). Sex

differences in jealousy: Evolutionary mechanism or artifact of

measurement? Journal of Personality & Social Psychology,

83, 1103-1116.

DeSteno, D. A., & Salovey, P. (1996). Evolutionary origins of sexdifferences in jealousy? Questioning the “fitness” of the model. Psychological Science, 7, 367-372.

Harris, R.C. (2003). Personality and Social Psychology Review. A Review of sex differences in sexual jealousy, including self/report Data, Psychophysiological responses, interpersonal violence and morbid jealousy. 7(102). 102-128. DOI: 10.1207/S15327957PSPR0702.

Harris, C. R. (2002). Sexual and romantic jealousy in heterosexual and homosexual adults. Psychological Science, 13, 7- 12. 

Harris, C. R. (2003). A review of sex differences in sexual jealousy, including self-report data, psychophysiological responses, interpersonal violence, and morbid jealousy. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 7(2), 102-128.

Shackelford, T. K., LeBlanc, G. J., & Drass, E. (2000). Emotional reactions to infidelity. Cognition & Emotion, 14(5), 643-659.

Sheets, V. L., & Wolfe, M. D. (2001). Sexual jealousy in heterosexuals, lesbians, and gays. Sex Roles, 44(5-6), 255-276.

Sheppard, V. J., Nelson, E. S., Andreoli-Mathie, V.  (1995). Dating

relationships and infidelity: Attitudes and behaviors. Journal of’

Sex & Marital Therapy,  21, 202-212.

Wiederman, M. W., & Allgeier, E. R. (1993). Gender differences in sexual jealousy: Adaptionist or social learning explanation?. Ethology and Sociobiology, 14(2), 115-140.


3 comments on “Jealousy – Evolutionary advantages, the dangerous passion and sexual differences.

  1. soueb1 says:

    Similar to your findings on emotional betrayal vs. sexual infidelity, Levy & Kelly (2010) asked men and women which they would find more distressing, plus a questionnaire measuring attachment style in romantic relationships. The findings confirmed that men and women were more upset about sexual infidelity if they prize their autonomy in relationships over commitment, rather than emotional infidelity. Conversely, those in attachment relationships found that emotional infidelity was more upsetting. Levy and Kelly state that the findings imply that psychological and cultural-environmental mechanisms that underlie in gender differences in jealously may have greater roles than we previously recognised. This suggests that jealousy is more multiply determined than we previously hypothesised.

  2. tsesenhin says:

    This blog demonstrates jealousy is oriented towards sexual reproduction, although from the evolutionary prospective it makes sense for Jealousy to be used for the purpose of sexual reproduction, however I believe Jealousy can be used beyond the current topic. The Cooperate to complete theory by Alexander (1990) states the emotions encouraged us to cooperative to complete with alternative human group in an environment with limited resources. For example, empathy might be used to encourage food sharing within the group and Jealousy might be used to motivate group member to complete efficiency towards alternative group.

    Furthermore, the social brain theory by Durbar (1998) shows the size of neo-cortex is correlated with your social group across species (including humans). This demonstrates social mechanism such as emotion could play a fundamental role in evolution across species.

  3. psych2204 says:

    I found this to be a really well written blog which had many interesting points. I would like to draw your attention to a psychiatric disorder called Othello syndrome or morbid jealousy. Unlike the ‘normal’ population for whom jealousy is triggered by the presence or implied presence of a rival or threat to ones love interest, sufferers live in a constant state of jealousy. Jealous feelings are intrusive and excessive and are usually channeled toward a romantically involved partner. Sufferers of Othello syndrome suffer strong delusions which depict their partner as being sexually unfaithful despite there being no evidence (Crichton, 1996). Obsessive behaviour is reported in the form of checking up on partners throughout the day. The sufferer is unable to put the feelings of jealousy aside and leave a normal life (Enoch & Trethowan, 1979).

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