Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

His and Her Jealousy?

Cultures teach us how to experience jealousy.

One of the best-known areas of research in Evolutionary Psychology involves how men and women approach intimate sexual relationships differently. Perhaps the best-known studies purporting to demonstrate the nature of these two differing strategies are those done by David Buss and his colleagues. Their hypothesis holds that if males and females have conflicting agendas concerning mating behavior, the differences should appear in the ways males and females experience sexual jealousy.

These researchers found that women were consistently more upset by thoughts of their mates' emotional infidelity, while men showed more anxiety concerning their mates' sexual infidelity, as the hypothesis predicts.

These results are often cited as confirmation of the male parental investment-based model. They appear to reflect the differing interests the model predicts. A woman, according to the theory, would be more upset about her partner's emotional involvement with another woman, as that would threaten her vital interests more. According to the standard model, the worst-case scenario for a prehistoric woman in this evolutionary game would be to lose access to her man's resources and support. If he limits himself to a meaningless sexual dalliance with another woman (in modern terms, preferably a woman of a lower social class or a prostitute-whom he would be unlikely to marry), this would be far less threatening to her standard of living and that of her children. However, if he were to fall in love with another woman and leave, the woman's prospects (and those of her children) would plummet.

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From the man's perspective, as noted above, the worst-case scenario would be to spend his time and resources raising another man's children (and propelling someone else's genes into the future at the expense of his own). If his partner were to have an emotional connection with another man, but no sex, this genetic catastrophe couldn't happen. But if she were to have sex with another man, even if no emotional intimacy were involved, he could find himself unknowingly losing his evolutionary "investment." Hence, the narrative predicts-and the research seems to confirm-that his jealousy should have evolved to control her sexual behavior (thus assuring paternity of the children), while her jealousy should be oriented toward controlling his emotional behavior (thus protecting her exclusive access to his resources).

Bunk.

There are a whole slew of problems with this research, which we cover in our book in some detail. This week, Sharon Begley of Newseek reported on some new research casting even more doubt on these studies. Lucky for us, these new findings only reinforce the point we make in the book, which is that the principal difference in how men and women experience jealousy comes from cultural teaching, not Pleistocene genetic encoding.

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins 2010).

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