Monday, September 18, 2017

The Evolutionary Psychology of Envy and Jealousy

The Evolutionary Psychology of Envy and Jealousy. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Baland Jalal. Front. Psychol., 19 September 2017 |

Abstract: The old dogma has always been that the most complex aspects of human emotions are driven by culture; Germans and English are thought to be straight-laced whereas Italians and Indians are effusive. Yet in the last two decades there has been a growing realization that even though culture plays a major role in the final expression of human nature, there must be a basic scaffolding specified by genes. While this is recognized to be true for simple emotions like anger, fear, and joy, the relevance of evolutionary arguments for more complex nuances of emotion have been inadequately explored. In this paper, we consider envy or jealousy as an example; the feeling evoked when someone is better off than you. Our approach is broadly consistent with traditional evolutionary psychology (EP) approaches, but takes it further by exploring the complexity and functional logic of the emotion – and the precise social triggers that elicit them – by using deliberately farfetched, and contrived “thought experiments” that the subject is asked to participate in. When common sense (e.g., we should be jealous of Bill Gates – not of our slightly richer neighbor) appears to contradict observed behavior (i.e., we are more envious of our neighbor) the paradox can often be resolved by evolutionary considerations which predict the latter. Many – but not all – EP approaches fail because evolution and common sense do not make contradictory predictions. Finally, we briefly raise the possibility that gaining deeper insight into the evolutionary origins of certain undesirable emotions or behaviors can help shake them off, and may therefore have therapeutic utility. Such an approach would complement current therapies (such as cognitive behavior therapies, psychoanalysis, psychopharmacologies, and hypnotherapy), rather than negate them.

(3) Let us say I were to prove by brain scans or some other reliable measure (e.g., mood/affect inventory) that (A) the Dalai Lama was vastly happier on some abstract, but very real, scale than (B) someone (say Hugh Heffner) who has limitless access to attractive women. Who are you more envious of?

Most men are more envious of the latter (9 out of 9 males we surveyed chose B). In other words, you are more jealous of what the other person has access to (in relation to what you desire), than of the final overall state of joy and happiness. This is true even though common sense might dictate the opposite. Put differently, evolution has programmed into you an emotion (jealousy) that is triggered by certain very specific “releasers” or social cues; it is largely insensitive to what the other person’s final state of happiness is. The final state of happiness is too abstract to have evolved as a trigger of envy or jealousy.

For similar reasons, if you are starving it makes more sense that you would be more jealous (at least temporarily) of someone enjoying a fine meal than someone having sex with a beautiful woman or man. If you are only slightly hungry, however, you might pick sex. This is because there is an unconscious metric in your brain that computes the probability of finding food in the near future vs. finding a nubile, available mate; and of the urgency of your need for food over the urgency of mating. If you are starving to death and have one last fling, you have only that single mating opportunity whereas if you eat and live you will have plenty of mating opportunities in the future.

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