Jealousy Definition

Jealousy is an unpleasant emotion that arises when one perceives that some important aspect of one’s relationship with another, or the relationship itself, is being threatened by someone else (a rival). For example, a person is likely to experience jealousy if his or her romantic partner appears to be emotionally or sexually interested in someone else. The term jealousy also applies to feelings that arise in other types of interpersonal relationships, such as when children exhibit distress over parents showering attention on a new sibling or when a person feels upset over being excluded by friends who are socializing together. Thus, jealousy requires the involvement of three individuals (the self, the partner, and the rival), which is sometimes referred to as a love triangle.

JealousyThe proposed function of jealousy is to motivate behaviors that will reestablish the relationship between the self and the partner and break up the threatening liaison between the partner and rival. Because close personal relationships provide individuals with many physical and psychological benefits, it is important to have psychological predispositions toward maintaining them. In evolutionary terms, it is likely that people who established and protected their relationships typically produced more offspring. Thus, the psychological traits that helped maintain relationships would have been selected for and passed down to us through our genes. One possibility is that jealousy may have originally evolved as a response to competition of siblings who are rivals for a parent’s time, attention, resources, and so forth, and was later usurped for the purpose of keeping friendships and romantic relationships together.

Jealousy Background

Although few would doubt that jealousy involves negative feelings, there is no unanimous consensus on the exact nature of the distress. The feelings we call jealousy may be a blend of other more basic feelings, particularly of anger, fear, and sadness. One possibility is an individual may experience all of these emotions simultaneously during a jealous episode. Another possibility is, rather than experiencing several different emotions at once, a person experiences a series of different emotions over the course of a single jealousy episode. Which emotion is experienced would depend on what one focused or ruminated on. For example, thinking about the loss of the relationship might elicit sadness, while thinking about the partner’s betrayal might elicit anger. A final possibility is that jealousy is its own distinct emotional state that elicits feelings and behaviors that are different from other emotions such as fear and anger.

Importance and Consequences of Jealousy

Jealousy can have powerful personal and social consequences. While it sometimes can lead to positive outcomes by redirecting a loved one’s attention to the self and reestablishing bonds, it also can have serious negative costs. For example, jealousy is frequently implicated as a factor in spousal abuse and often ranks as the third or fourth most common motive in nonaccidental homicides across cultures.

The first signs of jealousy appear to occur early in life. Some research suggests that a parent merely directing attention to another child is, in and of itself, sufficient to elicit jealousy in infants as young as 6 months. These infants displayed more negative emotion when their mothers interacted with a life-like baby doll, relative to when their mothers behaved the same way toward a nonsocial toy (e.g., a book). This suggests that complex cognitions are not needed to elicit at least some primitive form of jealousy in infants. However, with development, social and cognitive factors become increasingly important. Even by preschool age, the specifics of a social triangle influence whether jealousy arises. For example, 4-year-olds demonstrated more jealousy when their mothers interacted with a similar-aged peer than when she interacted with an infant, whereas younger infants’ jealousy was not affected by the rival’s age. Thus, one of the changes that occurs with development is that a person’s appraisal or assessment of the exact nature and meaning of the loved one and rival’s interactions become increasingly important in whether jealousy is experienced.

Research on the social-cognitive aspects of jealousy has emphasized two factors that make a loved one’s involvement with another particularly threatening: (1) when it challenges some aspect of a person’s self-concept, self-regard, or other self-representations, and (2) when it decreases the quality of the primary relationship. In other words, people ask themselves questions about the meaning of their loved one’s relationship to the rival: “What does this say about me? Am I unlovable, unattractive, boring, et cetera?” and “Will this rival relationship impact the important things I get from my relationship with my partner such as attention, affection, and support?” The answers to these questions will affect the intensity of jealousy over potential rival relationships.

Individual Differences in Jealousy

Many have wondered whether men or women are more jealous. While studies occasionally find men to be more jealous, others find women to be more jealous. Overall, there seems to be no major consistent differences in men’s and women’s jealousy. It was once believed that in men jealousy was a stronger motive for murder than in women. However, careful analyses of murder motives, taking into account men’s overall greater propensity for violence, show that a woman who commits murder is as likely to be motivated by jealousy as a man who commits murder.

One theory that has received a great deal of recent attention predicts that gender differences should exist in jealousy over a romantic partner’s infidelity: Men should feel more jealous over sexual betrayal and women over emotional betrayal. This view claims that in our evolutionary past, different threats impacted the number of children that any given man or woman could have. (The basic tenet of modern evolutionary theory is that we inherited our psychological and/or physical traits from the ancestral people who reproduced the most.) Since fertilization occurs internally within women, men can never know with 100% certainty that an offspring is indeed their own. Thus, ancestral man faced the threat of spending resources (food, time) on children that might not be his own. This would decrease the number of biological children that he had and increase those of someone else, which would help pass the other man’s genes on instead of his own. Hence, the theory suggests, men who were particularly vigilant to sexual infidelity could prevent this from happening. Thus, modern men should be particularly jealous of sexual infidelity. Women, however, cannot be tricked into bringing up someone else’s offspring, so they should not be particularly jealous of sexual infidelity per se. Instead, ancestral woman had to be concerned that her mate might give his resources to other women and their children, which would decrease the chances of the woman’s own children surviving and reproducing. Thus, present-day women should be particularly jealous over emotional infidelity. Inherent in this is the assumption that a man’s emotional involvement is a proxy for his spending resources on another. This hypothesis drew apparent support from early work that found when people were forced to predict whether a partner’s sexual or emotional infidelity would be more upsetting, more men than women picked sexual infidelity. However, recent research with other measures and with people who have actually experienced a loved one’s infidelity have not found consistent gender differences in jealousy over sexual and emotional infidelity.

Why might evolution have failed to produce gender differences? One possibility is that a more general jealousy reaction may have benefited both genders.

Infidelity rarely occurs abruptly; now, and presumably in the ancestral past, those people who would stray engage in flirting behaviors (e.g., increased eye contact and smiling) well before they have sex. These same behaviors can signal the beginnings of emotional interest, sexual interest, or both. Thus, there may be no need for men and women to have evolved jealous reactions tuned to different events. Instead, both sexes might best prevent either form of infidelity by being alert to the common early warning signs of either. This hypothesis is consistent with the emerging evidence that men and women show similar reactions to sexual and emotional infidelity.

Gender differences, however, are found in one type of jealousy, namely, clinical cases of pathological jealousy (also called morbid jealousy). Patients suffering form this disorder show a usually delusional conviction that their romantic partner is cheating on them. Before making this diagnosis, clinicians must think that the patient has weak and implausible evidence of betrayal or has an exaggerated reaction. Patients with pathological jealousy experience intense negative feelings and strong urges to check up on and spy on their partner and sometimes behave aggressively. Men make up approximately 64% and women 36% of pathological jealousy cases. Recent research suggests that, in some cases, pathological jealousy is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, which sometimes can be successfully treated with the antidepressant medication, fluoxetine.


  1. Harris, C. R. (2004). The evolution of jealousy. American Scientist, 92, 62-71.
  2. Salovey, P. (Ed.). (1991). The psychology of jealousy and envy. New York: Guilford Press.