How romantic jealousy hijacks the mind

“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.”

ResearchBlogging.orgJon 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.

One thought on “How romantic jealousy hijacks the mind”

  1. Jealousy is seen as a negative force. It's the main fuel for crimes of passion and is linked with brutality, including domestic violence, and even murder. But the great psychologist Sigmund Freud believed that it's not only normal, it's actually desirable to feel jealous. And like all other emotions it's developed to give us the best guess at what's happening in our lives.
    All humans at kind of a very innate level have the capacity to feel jealous, and will feel it when they sense that the relationship is being threatened, but that's the integral part. What determines when you feel that your relationship is being threatened, that varies a lot by cultural, by social learning, by past experiences. So think about your friends, you co-workers. Some individuals may react incredibly jealously when their partner simply smiles at someone else, and other people that doesn't bother them at all. And I think that is related to how the actions by their partner make them feel about themselves. Some people who have different secure levels of attachment may be more or less jealous by a certain act. And some cultures allow certain interactions between men and women that other cultures proscribe, and I think as we grow through our lives we're constantly tuning our threat detection mechanisms, so to speak, based on our past experiences and based on our culture.

Comments are closed.