What everyone ought to know about Jealousy

by Dorian Minors

May 13, 2014

Analects  |  Newsletter


Jealousy isn’t really that complicated when it comes down to it. Makes us ‘protect’ our loved ones. But from what? And can we control it? In this article, we talk about the specifics of jealousy, when it pops up and just how much control we really have.

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Jealousy is apparent within us from a very early age. Babies show negative emotion and will focus on their mother if the mother is paying more attention to even a doll than the baby. This is not the case when the mother pays attention to a story book. Interesting right? As we grow older, jealousy stays pretty stable and general until we’re three years old. As we get older than that, it can get a little more complicated. In general though, toddlers will try to get close to the mother, kiss her, climb on her and even bite her to get her attention. This makes sense, because as we’ve talked about before, jealousy is considered an evolutionary emotion, born within us.

But that doesn’t mean it’s completely the same fore everyone. More collectivist cultures, like for example the Gusii in Kenya, minimise childrens’ desire and their expectations of exclusive attention. As a result, these kids are far more likely to share by 12 months and avoid interrupting adult conversation than those raised in a western society where exclusive attention is treated as key to development.

Back to our culture, as we grow older, our strategies become more cunning to divert attention away from our siblings (we’ll have ‘accidents’ and break things or ‘hurt’ ourselves, rather than throwing a tanty for example). By about 10, 98% of kids in a study conducted by Volling and colleagues in 2010 reported sibling jealousy happened at least once a month.

Generally, girls tend to show more jealousy of their siblings than boys and this translates to our friends as we develop them. Parker and his colleagues showed that this was because girls tend to think more about their relationships and expect more kindness, commitment and loyalty than their male counterparts. Basically, girls have more at stake.

Psychologists suggest a bunch of theories to explain why we get jealous and to explain those that get more jealous than others. From insecure attachments (especially anxious) to dependency to self-esteem issues. However, some of these are probably more relevant than others. Attachment theories seem to have little hold over jealousy in adulthood according to Harris and Darby in 2010, where both insecure and secure attachments were shown to have jealousy issues in their friendships.

“Men and women are often different in what makes them more jealousy. But the difference doesn’t usually matter. An emotional affair almost always implies a physical one and vice versa. “

What about romantically? Well, jealousy here differs between the sexes. Women tend to get more upset at the thought of emotional affairs, men; physical ones. This ties very closely with the evolutionary theories behind our sexual arousal. But when infidelity actually happens, the reasons we are upset don’t actually match the evolutionary explanations, suggesting that there’s a bit more to it than that. Some researchers suggest this is because actual infidelity has an implied emotional and sexual affair attached to it. However, men and women report far less jealousy at the thought of a same-sex encounter, which does lend support to that evolutionary hypothesis.

There is a thing called pathological jealousy. A fun little thing in which people go absolutely nuts over unfounded evidence. They report irrational thoughts and emotions and very extreme behaviour. A classic example of this is Othello, for those of you who studied Shakespeare in high school. Interestingly, pathological jealousy happens very often alongside personality disorders, substance abuse and other psychopathological diagnoses (basically, mental illness). This suggests this pathological jealousy is actually a symptom of something a little more sinister than just low self-esteem.

So there you go. Jealousy is a weird little thing. We’re born with the green monster in us, but it is something we can control. At least a little. Unless you’re a bit bonkers, in which case it might be correspondingly intense. But at the end of the day, it’s a motivator just like all emotions. It makes you protect those you love. So sometimes it’s useful. Don’t forget that.

Do you have a ‘friend’ who acts jealous, but really they aren’t your friend? Check this article out for why that might be. And in case you were hoping for an article on ‘envy’, maybe you’ll be interested to know why having smarter friends can be useful. Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and ‘the good life’ at The Dirt Psychology.

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