"Not so long ago jealousy was considered a pointless, archaic institution in need of reform. But like other denials of human nature from the 1960s, this bromide has not aged well. ... The rock musician who wrote 'If you love somebody set them free' also wrote 'Every breath you take, I'll be watching you.'"
- Steven Pinker, on David Buss's The Dangerous Passion
Have you ever felt threatened in the presence of others you perceive to be superior to you? I recall one time when I was a teaching assistant in an introductory psychology course and, in the middle of a discussion about how jealousy is experienced when your partner interacts with someone else who appears to have higher mate value than you, an eager student asked, “Professor, but how do you know if that person has a higher mate value than you?” To which the professor smiled and cheekily said, “Oh, you just know.”
To humour the bemused student, the professor gave some scenarios. If you’re a guy, just imagine this. Some other socially dominant male is talking to your girlfriend or wife, and he’s trying to make her laugh. Worse, she actually laughs along and looks like she’s having a very comfortable and enjoyable time. If you’re a lady, imagine the reverse – your boyfriend or husband has met a younger and physically attractive woman, and now he’s the one trying to make her laugh, and she’s playing along and being very reciprocative. That creeping feeling of alarm bells and jealousy becomes just a tad more resonant.
In the dating and mating game, what exactly are those social cues that get us to be on our guard, to experience inferiority and to feel threatened? Gutierres, Kenrick and Partch (1999), researchers looking at the issue through an evolutionary perspective, explored the oft-cited mating preferences of men for physical attractiveness and women for status and social dominance, and elucidated interesting sex differences in contrast effects.
The researchers gathered data from 91 undergraduate females and 99 undergraduate males and primed the men with either physically attractive men or socially dominant men while, on the other hand, priming the women with either physically attractive women or socially dominant women. Exposure to physically attractive men or women was done by showing participants photographs of people, while exposure to socially dominant men or women was done by getting participants to read a descriptive profile of a person with high dominance.
Interestingly, their study found that men’s self-assessments of desirability were adversely affected by exposure to highly socially dominant men and were relatively unaffected by exposure to physically attractive men. Conversely, women’s self-reports of their mate value were more affected by the physical attractiveness than by the social dominance of the women to whom they were exposed. This demonstrated that humans are sensitive to the selective mate preferences of the opposite gender. If we consistently fail to match up to the quality of our rivals, this can have an effect on how we perceive our own desirability!
More recently, another set of experiments conducted by Maner, Gailliot, Rouby and Miller (2007) also looked at how our state of mind affects the level of attention we give to stimulus objects in our environment.
A total of three studies were done on undergraduate students to explore how this interacts in the scene of human mating. It was found that when participants were primed with feelings of romantic and sexual arousal, a ‘mate-search’ psychological mechanism was activated which resulted in greater attentional adhesion* towards attractive members of the opposite sex. On the contrary, when participants were evoked with feelings of jealousy (imagining a scenario that perhaps closely resembles the one that the professor had painted), a ‘mate-guard’ state of mind was primed which led to greater attentional adhesion to attractive same-sex targets.
So is jealousy simply a manifestation of insecurity? Perhaps the answer is both yes and no. Yes, because it does seem apparent that the mind is designed to experience jealousy when the environment provides feedback on where you stand. If there are many people of the same sex as you in the room who are far more attractive, that’s good reason to feel insecure especially when being evaluated by members of the opposite sex. But jealousy isn’t only just a manifestation of insecurity because it serves an important adaptive function – to alert us to the potential dangers of losing your mate, telling us to be aware of snakes and wolves in the environment, and getting us to turn on our A-game where necessary. As David Buss writes in The Dangerous Passion, jealousy is as necessary as love and sex.
* Attentional adhesion refers to how readily a person tends to a particular stimulus. In most documented cases, this is determined by measuring participants' reaction time taken to respond to stimulus.
Maner JK, Gailliot MT, Rouby DA, & Miller SL (2007). Can't take my eyes off you: Attentional adhesion to mates and rivals. Journal of personality and social psychology, 93 (3), 389-401 PMID: 17723055
Gutierres, S., Kenrick, D., & Partch, J. (1999). Beauty, Dominance, and the Mating Game: Contrast Effects in Self-Assessment Reflect Gender Differences in Mate Selection Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25 (9), 1126-1134 DOI: 10.1177/01461672992512006
Buss, D. M. (2000). The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is As Necessary As Love and Sex. New York: Free Press.