Jealousy: Are We Doomed?

This research topic submitted by Angie Heimann and Sarah Lyon ( on 2/25/98.

Angie Heiman
Sarah Lyon
Feb. 22, 1998
NSII Chris Myers
Research proposal

Our initial idea for our project on jealousy was to speculate on Robert Wright’s jealousy hypothesis. Wright claims that:

"male jealousy should focus on sexual infidelity, and males should be quite unforgiving of it; a female, though she'll hardly applaud a partners extracurricular activities, since they consume time and divert resources, should be more concerned with emotional infidelity--the sort of magnetic commitment to another woman that could eventually lead to a much larger diversion of resources." (Wright 66)

Wright’s statement shows a clear leaning toward the biological origins of jealousy. Originally, we set out to prove or (we had hoped) disprove Wright’s claim that there is an essential difference in the way males and females experience jealousy, and a biological reason on which the difference rests. The idea that females care about male paternal input, and might “put up with” sexual infidelity as long as her mate keeps the goods coming, along with the idea that a male would probably not tolerate sexual infidelity, because he would not want to waste time raising another man’s offspring (thus propagating the genes of someone else), seems to present human nature in a rather economic light. The biological “difference” claim states that women care mostly about being financially secure, while men don’t want to waste “precious” time that could be otherwise spent investing in his own genes. Where is sentimentality in all of this? Are we doomed to forever feeling pangs of jealousy, and reacting in ways that might be detrimental to a healthy relationship? Are women really from Venus and men from Mars? That is, is this jealousy difference so deeply encoded within us that partners will never truly understand one another or be able to interact “rationally” to overcome it? In asking the question “are we doomed,” we set out to first examine Wright’s claim through the lenses of universality, and changes through time.

We expected to find proof that jealousy is more cultural than biological, because of Right’s many seemingly skewed views (with little scientific backing) on other topics, and also because of our personal experiences and views on the subject. However, after researching the topic more in depth, we found that most authors, of both “nurture” or “nature” opinions, tended to give both sides credit.

We examined the universality of jealousy, starting with the basic assumption that jealousy does, indeed, spread across cultures, and is to some degree a universal human emotion. However, we found that the ways different cultures experience jealousy differ so greatly that it becomes difficult to make the claim that jealousy is wholly biological. The psychologist R. B. Hupka hypothesizes that there is a standardized method by which we can determine weather a culture will be “more jealous” or “less jealous.”

“Specifically, Hupka hypothesized that the loss of a mate is a great threat in societies which (1) endorse the concept of private property, (2) make a mate the only legitimate source of sexual gratification, (3) endow biological offspring with significance for their parents, and (4) confer status with marriage. To illustrate the effect of these factors on jealousy, Hupka contrasts the Toda of India who were not very jealous with the Apaches of North America who were very jealous. “(Mathes p. 108-109)

Hupka contrasts the two societies, indeed showing how the Apache society seems to be based on his four pivotal factors, while the Todas seem to almost escape jealousy because of the seeming absence of these factors. However, when he describes the Toda’s lack of sexual restraints: “Should a man want another man’s wife as a lover he would talk to the woman and her husband(s) and if all agreed he would pay an annual fee to the husband(s) for her services,” he neglects to mention what a woman is to do if she desires to be with a man other than her husband. Indeed, this example seems to say that the Toda’s do endorse the notion of private property--otherwise, why is a man paid a fee for the “services” of his wife? Doesn’t the necessity for payment suggest ownership? Despite the somewhat sexist discrepancies here, Hupka’s claim seems compelling at least in one aspect: Jealousy is provoked, experienced and expressed differently in different cultures. We explored this notion further, and found more evidence to support it. For instance, the question of “which male ‘should’ feel jealousy” depends on who’s place it is to guard female fidelity/chastity: In Spain and other parts of Europe, it is largely the husband’s duty, while in North Africa and parts of India, it is the brother’s duty. (Van Sommers, p. 118).

We also explored “jealousy through time,” that is, how social attitudes regarding the legitimacy of jealousy change over time, and how these social attitudes affect the individual’s experience of and reaction to jealousy. We focused on Western culture, and explored three major eras: the pre-Victorian period, the Victorian period, and the post-Victorian period. Peter N. Stearns claims that the pre-Victorians felt an ambivalence toward jealousy: it was not completely “good and acceptable” in that it could create violent, hateful effects, but “precisely because individuals were not taught to define themselves through carefully crafted personalities or achievements, jealousy was essential in protecting the reputation and power that served in their stead to give a man a feeling of importance and pride.” ( Stearns p. 15) In other words, although a “man” (and what of the woman? there seems to be a somewhat universal discrepancy in our research about jealousy--many of the authors speak in terms of “man” --do they mean “human”?) was not to “craft himself” a really distinguished personality, the roots of an individualist culture were beginning to form, allowing a place for jealousy as a “protector of reputation.” Stearns states that Victorian society stressed female passionlessness and male restraint-- a stress that would have supposedly made jealousy obsolete. The underlying belief of the Victorian attitude seems to be that jealousy is controllable, and should be controlled as an aftereffect of “proper” behavior for males, and that females need not control it at all, because of their “inherent” passionlessness. Attitudes toward jealousy in the twentieth century, like Victorian attitudes, stress that jealousy can be controlled, but differ from Victorian attitudes in the reasoning for why they should be controlled. The twentieth century attitude stresses that jealousy should be controlled because it cannot coexist with love, and because it is a “base” emotion that should be overcome in order for a healthy relationship to exist. This brings us to the question “can jealousy be controlled?” Though attitudes through time change, can an individual socialize herself to be rid of jealousy? Or, are we, in fact, doomed?

In our research, we found strong evidence for both the biological and sociological bases for jealousy--and we agree that jealousy cannot be “one” or “the other.” We will further explore the possible social/biological origins of jealousy by looking more closely at one of the areas we found interesting in our research: changes through time. Specifically, we will look at two age groups--17-27 and 28-60. We have chosen these age groups because most people in college will fall within the first group, while their parents will fall within the second. We have designed our survey around these two groups because we hypothesize that the social attitudes/acceptance of the time so largely affect personal experiences and reactions to jealousy, that they ultimately make one generation (the parent generation) more prone to differences in male/female jealousy.

• What is your sex? M F
• What is your age? 17-27 28-geezer
• What is your sexual orientation? gay straight bi don’t know
• In your experience, do you consider yourself more jealous in a romantic situation than the average person? 1 2 3 4 5
• Do you consider your partner(s) to be more jealous than average?
1 2 3 4 5
• Do you feel jealous when your partner spends time with friends in a non- sexual way? 1 2 3 4 5
• Do you feel more attracted to your partner when you think they may be cheating on you? 1 2 3 4 5
• Do you think that jealousy is cultural, biological, or a little of both?
cultural biological both
• Do you think that jealousy changes throughout different generations?
yes no
• Do you think that society plays any effect on human jealousy?
yes no
• If you have a pet, has it ever shown signs of jealousy?
yes no


Mathes, Eugene. Jealousy: The Psychological Data. Maryland: Unversity Press of America, 1992.
Salovey, Peter (ed.). The Psychology of Jealousy and Envy. New York: The Guilford Press, 1991.
Schoenfeld, Eugene. Jealousy: Taming the Green Monster. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979.
Stearns, Peter. Jealousy: The Evolution of an Emotion in American History. New York: New York University Press, 1989.
Van Sommers, Peter. Jealousy: What is it and who feels it? London: Penguin Books, 1988.
Wright, Robert. The Moral Animal.

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