Why Are People So Jealous --- There's an
Evolutionary Reason for That
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February 27, 2014
By Kenneth Lashay and A. Lee,   Contributing Columnists

We’ve all fallen prey to the ‘green-eyed monster’ at some point in our
lives, whether it was jealousy of the baby born next in line, or envy
over the neighbor’s shiny new fishing boat, or the annoyance of a rival
competing for the affection of a close friend.

Psychologists tell us that jealousy is really a composite feeling, made up
of even more fundamental emotions like fear of abandonment,
humiliation, or outright rage.  So just why do all humans have these
feelings, and where did they come from? Could they have been part of
the human emotional package right from the beginning?

Freudian theory of jealousy

     The legendary inventor of modern psychiatry had a theory of
jealousy that enjoyed widespread support for a time. Freud held that
jealousy was actually rooted in the Oedipus complex, which posits that
all children are in love with their parent of the opposite gender, and
eventually become wildly jealous of the other parent who has captured
the affections of opposite-gender parent. He also stated that jealousy is
comprised of baser components:

•        The pain of losing someone we love
•        The disturbing realization that we will never get everything we
•        Enmity towards a romantic rival
•        Anger or disappointment in ourselves because of our own

While this view may embody some partial truths, it is not as popular
today as formerly because of some obvious shortcomings. For one
thing, people in same-sex relationships feel jealousy just as intensely as
do heterosexual couples, so the Oedipal transference does not obtain
over the broad base of relationships.  An interesting theory these days
has to do with speculation by evolutionary biologists, and is commonly
referred to as the Darwinian theory of jealousy.

Darwinian theory of jealousy

     This look at jealousy and its origins is even more fundamental than
Freud’s in its principle features, because it ascribes the beginnings of
jealousy to the predecessors of homo sapiens, and places it squarely in
the lap of Survival. These scientists have speculated that the feeling we
now refer to as jealousy began as an evolutionary trigger among
primitive human-like beings to alert them to potential threats to the
basic family unit.

     Since the family unit depended on the adult male for its very
existence, in terms of providing food, shelter, etc., any other female
entering the picture would literally represent a threat to existence. If
the adult male were to abandon his family unit in favor of this other
female, the chances of survival for his ex-mate and children were not
good. The principal operates in the opposite direction as well – if the
female were to abandon the male in favor of another mate, the ex-mate
might survive, but he would not be able to reproduce and continue the
species. Thus the evolutionary trigger provides a real and necessary
alert to species continuance.

     The stronger the signal to one of these beings that a threat existed,
the stronger would be the feeling of jealousy, i.e. the reactions elicited
by terrible feelings of abandonment and fear for survival. When any of
these feelings grew strong enough to prompt some kind of intervention
to remove the threat, survival chances increased and the genetic
material from the jealous mate would be much more likely to be
preserved in the evolutionary line and passed on to successors.

Do Other Animals Feel Jealousy?

     Many people will swear to the fact that their dog or cat is very
jealous of others who might vie for the attention of their masters, and
can cite numerous other examples of jealousy from their beloved pets.
Scientists do now believe that jealousy can occur in animals, especially
in the higher primates, but sometimes also in animals lower in the
evolutionary pecking order.

     Jealousy is considered to be a ‘secondary’ emotion, one that
requires greater cognitive processes like self-awareness. The primary
emotions of course are the universal ones like fear, anger, disgust, joy,
and surprise. In order for a person or an animal to be jealous, there
would have to be awareness of self, relative to awareness of others so
that some kind of comparison could take place.

     When testing for jealousy is done, at its heart is this testing for self-
awareness relative to others. Tests have been conducted among dogs
for instance, to determine if they become jealous when other dogs are
awarded treats while they are not, for performing the same set of
actions. Results of such tests are fairly conclusive in showing that dogs
do become jealous in certain laboratory-arranged situations. As further
evidence, it is also known that dogs have the same hormone as humans
which is related to love and jealousy, oxytocin.  

     In a now famous experiemnet, Dr. Friedrike Range of the University
of Vienna tested 43 dogs to determinine of they could feel jealousy. He
gave the dogs a simple taks, to “shake hands”. Dogs were tested in
pairs. When the first dog of a pair performed the hand shake correctly,
it was given a treat. When the second dog performed the handshake, it
was not given a treat.  What result? The next time the trainer asked the
second dog to perform the handshake, it refused.

This study and others have confirmed that almost all dog owners
know—dogs can and do feel jealousy.

It turns out that we humans, all other primates and dogs, horses and
other animals have an innate sense of fairness. We not only watch what
we do and what we receive in a given system. We watch what our
fellow humans, neighbors, friends and partners receive from the

When we perceive that what we get out of a system is less than what
someone else got out of it for the same amount of work/performance,
jealously is a natural result. It’s not a character flaw. It’s not
something we can or should try to “correct”. It’s natural.

How to Handle Jealousy

Accept Jealousy. Jealousy is a natural part of being human. Like your
arm, your leg, your brain, the ability to feel jealous is wired into you.

So, instead of criticizing yourself for being jealous, try instead to
evaluate what you put into the relationship, the job, the system. If you
find that you’re coming out on the short end of the stick, don’t
suppress the jealousy. Point out the inequity to whoever is doling out
the treats. And go and get your fair share, dog. Bark, and ye shall

2. Write It Down to Avoid the Jealousy Cascade. You have to act as
your own heart surgeon in a way. Write down exactly what behavior f
your wife, girlfriend, lover, boss, friend, brother has triggered the
jealousy. Write down exactly what happened, when it happened, how
you felt just before it happened. Then write down whether this has
happened before. The more detailed you can get about the triggering
event, the more expert you will become at recognizing when your
emotions are about to go over into the Jealousy Cascade --refusing to
participate, withdrawal, anger and worse.

The Jealousy Cascade, left unchecked, always destroys your self-
esteem and your relationship.

Remember that Shakespeare's Othello only "thought" that Desdemona
had cheated on him --- he was wrong --- but he killed her.  

Be Skeptical of Jealousy. Jealousy is an untrustworthy emotion. It's
natural, yes, but it is often unreliable in terms of helping you navigate
life. Jealousy often acts on inaccurate information, or imperfect
readings of situations. Jealousy triggers powerful emotions of
retaliation, rage, even violent rage.

Therefore, keep jealousy at a distance, much like you would keep an
untrustworthy pal at arm's length. It can give you information on how
deeply invested you are in a person or a situation but it almost never
gives you a good roadmap for how to resolve conflict.

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Jealousy makes you easy to manipulate. .