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  1. James M. Hepburn

Published Online: 30 JAN 2010

DOI: 10.1002/9780470479216.corpsy0492

Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology

Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology

How to Cite

Hepburn, J. M. 2010. Jealousy. Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology. 1–2.

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  1. Waynesburg University

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 30 JAN 2010

Jealousy is typically defined as an emotional response to the threat of losing a valued relationship to a rival. Although it is not considered to be a primary emotion, such as fear, sadness or joy, jealousy reflects a vital emotional process that is clinically and socially relevant to psychologists. Jealousy is found in every culture and has been recorded throughout history as an integral component to human relationships. Although it is neither desired nor essential for healthy relationships, it is nevertheless a common, even ubiquitous response. All people experience jealousy at some point in their lives. Unfortunately, some people's experience of jealousy involves intense psychological turmoil that can lead to aggressive or maladaptive responses. A majority of violent crime involving intimate partners—including murder, stalking or domestic abuse—can be attributed to feelings of jealousy.

Some leading researchers on emotion argue that jealousy is not an emotion at all, but an amalgamation of fluctuating feelings of anger, fear, sadness, or disgust, and that the reaction reflects the dynamics of a social situation. Psychologists generally identify jealousy as a social emotion, in the same class as shame, embarrassment, and envy. Jealousy emerges when a valued relationship with another person is threatened by a rival who appears to be competing for attention, affection, or commitment. Unlike envy, jealousy requires a triangulation. Envy arises when we covet the possession of another, but jealousy occurs when we feel we possess a valued relationship that may be taken by someone else. Both envy and jealousy arise when our self-esteem is diminished, but jealousy is much more likely to evoke an overt response to secure what is believed to be one's own, whereas envy is usually concealed from others. Some people may feel ashamed of envying another person, but a jealous individual may feel righteous and justified in acting deliberately or aggressively in response to the perceived encroachment on the relationship.

In Othello, Shakespeare refers to jealousy as a green-eyed monster. It is interesting that the color green is a blending of two primary hues, yellow and blue, just as jealousy is also a blending of emotions. Furthermore, the color green reflects the immature nature of jealousy in the context of love. It is a possessive love that betrays the need for the other person's esteem and good will to compensate for one's own inadequacies. Green is also the color through which the monster sees the world, through a sickened veneer that transforms normal perception into a distorted view of suspicion everywhere the person looks. In this sense jealousy has taken on pathological dimensions in which people feel emotionally sick and distort reality through delusional thoughts about the motives and activities of the one they love and the person who threatens to disrupt the harmony of the relationship.

At the heart of jealousy is the threat to self esteem. The investments and commitments inherent in close interpersonal relationships contain an implicit recognition that one is valued and esteemed by the other. Jealous people have calculated that their status in a valued relationship has been diminished by the possibility that another person may become more important. It is the potential preference of a rival that sparks the jealous response. Jealousy signals a diminishment of status in a relationship in which people once believed they were in a favored position. It is this perceived threat to self-esteem that leads to protective and potentially aggressive responses as a means to eliminating the rival.

Not all experiences of jealousy are pathological. In fact, the absence of jealous feelings in the face of bona fide threats to significant relationships would be abnormal. Normal jealousy, sometimes referred to as reactive jealousy, occurs when there has been a completed and verifiable act of infidelity or transgression of the relationship. In these instances, the jealous person is reacting to an external event and is likely to feel an admixture of anger, fear, and sadness. A second type of jealousy would be considered more pathological, in that it is rooted in the personality and disposition of the jealous individual. Suspicious jealousy is more likely to emerge for individuals who have developmental histories of being insecurely attached or in individuals who have damaged or distorted self-systems. These people are responding more to intrapsychic dynamics in which they feel rejection and abandonment at the slightest provocation, than to actual events in the social world. They defend against feelings of inadequacy through denial and projection. Suspicious jealousy is characterized by internal conflicts, and the emotions of anxiety, doubt, and insecurity predominate.

The field of evolutionary psychology has introduced a new focus to the research on jealousy. According to evolutionary psychologists, jealousy is a remnant of our ancestral past that serves to warn us of potential threats to the integrity of close interpersonal relationships. According to this theory, a man is more likely to feel intense jealousy if his mate cuckolds him, whereas women are more threatened by emotional infidelity. The reason for these sex differences is rooted in reproductive biology. Ancestral women needed the man's emotional commitment to secure vital resources for their offspring, whereas ancestral men could not be assured of their paternity if their mates were sexually active with others. Therefore, evolutionary psychologists maintain that modern men and women are likely to become jealous for different reasons and with varying intensities, depending on whether their partner is engaged in sexual or emotional infidelity. Some researchers suggest, however, that the apparent differences in the responses of modern men and women are a result of faulty methodologies, and that the suggestion of sex differences in jealousy is spurious at best.

Psychologists generally agree that jealousy is a disturbing experience that combines the emotions of anger, anxiety, betrayal, and hurt when one feels that a valued relationship is threatened by a third party. There are different theories about the underlying motives and dynamics that lead to jealous feelings and responses. These competing theories include evolved sex differences, attachment styles or disposition, self-esteem, and learned social and cultural expectations. Future research on jealousy should help to clarify these controversies while addressing the more pragmatic needs of therapists and human service professionals to effectively manage this unsettling and potentially dangerous emotional experience.


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  2. References
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  • Rydell, R. J., & Bringle, R. G. (2007). Differentiating reactive and suspicious jealousy. Social Behavior and Personality, 35, 10991114.
  • Walton, S. (2004). A natural history of human emotions. New York: Grove Press.