Men and Women Experience Sexual and Emotional Infidelity Differently.

Men and Women Experience Sexual and Emotional Infidelity Differently.

Posted Jun 01, 2009

In a classic evolutionary-based study that has since been replicated by numerous other scholars, David Buss and his colleagues (Buss et al., 1992) demonstrated that romantic jealousy is experienced in somewhat different ways by the two sexes (see also Edlund et al., 2006; Fernandez et al., 2006; Miller & Maner, 2009; Schützwohl, 2004). Whereas men are particularly threatened by sexual infidelity, women experience the greater level of distress at the prospect of their mate being emotionally disloyal. Hence, whereas both men and women are equally jealous (in an overall sense), the triggers are somewhat different. Of course, men are threatened and angered by emotional infidelity, as are women of sexual infidelity, however the differential reaction to each of the two threats is sex-specific. The Darwinian explanation is rather simple and elegant: Only men can experience parental uncertainty (specifically paternal uncertainty) and hence they have evolved the emotional apparatus that responds harshly to threats of cuckoldry (i.e., sexual infidelity). On the other hand, the greatest threat to a woman's evolutionary interests (in the context of long-term bonding) is the possibility that a man may withdraw his investment from the relationship and/or the couple's offspring (which need not be synonymous with financial support). Such withdrawal is much more likely if a man forms an emotional bond with another woman first. In other words, a one-time sexual dalliance by a man may actually be much less threatening to a marriage than a prolonged and intense platonic relationship with another woman.

A few additional clarifications:
(1) Buss et al. used physiological measures namely heart rate, skin conductance, and facial electromyography (to measure frowning) to gauge the adverse reactions that men and women experienced to sexual and emotional infidelity. As such, participants did not respond using a paper-and-pencil task, as this would have very likely caused them to succumb to the proverbial social desirability bias. People can consciously control their responses to a questionnaire but they are less capable of "faking" their physiological outcomes (unless of course they are psychopaths, these being able to consistently fool lie detector machines).

(2) The fact that evolutionists provide explanations for these universally sex-specific responses does not in any way imply that they are justifying any particular behavior. This is a common misconception with regards to evolutionary theory in general and evolutionary psychology in particular. People conflate a scientific explanation as implying that the researchers are hence justifying the given behavior, emotion, or cognition. This is as logical as to argue that by providing an explanation for leukemia, hematologists are "justifying the existence of cancerous cells in the blood."

(3) This robust finding demonstrates the power of evolutionary theory in parsing a question at a more granular level. Had the question been simply "which of the two sexes is more romantically jealous", the study would have yielded a null effect (i.e., both sexes are equally jealous). Once it is recognized that in the mating arena, men and women share many commonalities but also possess numerous biological-based differences, the differential response to sexual and emotional infidelity becomes obvious.

In my next post, I will discuss a study that I conducted with Tripat Gill, a former doctoral student of mine, on sex differences in the triggers of envy. I'd ask you to think about the following question prior to reading my next post: Name the three attributes that would make you the most envious of a same-sex rival (e.g., their height, intelligence, good looks, charisma, body shape, other personality traits, etc.).

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