“Jealousy can no more bear to lose sight of [its] objects than love” George Eliot (1860)
The mind is altered by the fear that a lover is about to be lured away. Attention and memory systems are hijacked, turned to focus on attractive rivals. That’s according to Jon Maner and colleagues who say theirs is one of the first studies to look at how romantic jealousy alters low-level cognitive functioning.
Maner’s team conducted four studies with hundreds of heterosexual student participants. All began and ended in a similar way. Infidelity concerns were triggered in half the participants by asking them to write about four or five incidents in which they’d felt romantically jealous. The remaining participants acted as controls and wrote about an anxiety-provoking scenario that had nothing to do with infidelity. Meanwhile, all the studies ended with a test of chronic jealousy. Participants were categorised as jealous according to how jealous they said they would feel in a range of ambiguous scenarios – for example, seeing their partner smile to someone of the opposite sex.
Here are the key findings. The first study required participants to shift their attention away from pictures of faces to make judgements about shapes located in a different part of the computer screen. Prompting concerns about infidelity caused jealous participants to find it difficult to drag their attention away from photos of attractive people of the same sex as themselves. It was as if their minds had become focused on romantic threats. Their attention to average looking people, by contrast, was unaffected.
The second study involved a card game a bit like “pairs” or “concentration” and showed that infidelity concerns prompted jealous participants to have superior memory specifically for attractive faces of people of the same sex as themselves – again, suggesting that their minds were suddenly wired up to detect romantic threats.
The final two studies showed that writing about infidelity caused jealous participants to suddenly develop subconscious negative attitudes towards attractive people of the same sex. For example, they were quicker to respond when attractive faces and negative words were associated with the same response key. This is the opposite to the usual finding that attractive people are viewed more positively.
“The current work provides a rich picture of the cognitive processes that may be involved in protecting relationships from potential romantic rivals,” the researchers said. “Priming the threat of infidelity promoted intrasexual vigilance – a functionally organised cascade of lower-order cognitive processes aimed at preferentially processing highly attractive, and therefore highly threatening, members of one’s own sex.”
Jon Maner, Saul Miller, Aaron Rouby, & Matthew Gailliot (2009). Intrasexual vigilance: The implicit cognition of romantic rivalry. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 74-87. [link to pdf of study via author’s website.]
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.