Saturday, December 1, 2007

Sex Differences in Jealousy

Buunk, B.P., Angleitner, A., Oubaid, V., & Buss, D.M. (1996). Sex Differences in Jealousy in Evolutionary and Cultural Perspective: Tests From the Netherlands, Germany, and the United States, Psychological Science, 7, 359-363.

In the 1992 article “Sex differences in jealousy in evolutionary and cultural perspective”, Buunk et al. suggested that women typically find emotional infidelity to be more distressing than sexual infidelity, whereas men are bothered more than women by sexual infidelity. The article leapt to the conclusion that these results supported hypotheses of jealousy offered by evolutionary psychology, a field which believes behavior evolves in a species if it is (or was) somehow adaptive. C.R. Harris & N. Christenfeld (HC) reacted to the article with “Gender, Jealousy, and Reason” which provided an alternate explanation for how such data might appear.

The experiment of the 1992 Buunk et al. article was replicated by HC during their subsequent study, reaching similar results. Both studies revealed that men demonstrate greater anguish to sexual than to emotional infidelity of their partner, whereas women grow more upset to emotional infidelity. However, HC were skeptical of the conclusions drawn by Buunk et al. – namely that the gender differences in sexual jealousy shown across geography and cultures was necessarily in support of an evolutionary psychology explanation.

In order to combat such conclusions, HC posed some additional questions to their respondents. First, they explicitly asked if they discovered that their partner was engaging in sexual intercourse with someone else, how likely did they think that their mate would be in love with this person. Conversely, they also asked respondents to imagine they discovered their mate was in love with someone else and to indicate how likely they believed their partner would also be engaging in sex with this other person.

The results concluded that men think that sex implies love for their partners more so than women, whereas women think that love implies sex more so than men. Given this extra data, one would find it reasonable to conclude, as a woman, that emotional infidelity also implies sexual infidelity. Essentially a double whammy, likely signifying both emotional and sexual infidelity, emotional infidelity is thus logically more troubling to a woman and might account for the uniqueness of results across genders.

Suggesting that men and women may instead show differences in their interpretations of the evidence of infidelity, HC challenged the foundational conclusions of Buunk et al. Although applying evolutionary psychology models may be provocative and convincing, HC showed that cognitive explanations may be equally plausible. Thus, one should exercise caution when interpreting the results of such a study of jealousy.

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