Are women inherently more jealous than men?
It's certainly a touchy subject, and with good reason—the trope of the jealous woman can be extremely damaging. After all, how many "overly attached girlfriend" memes can you take before you start to snap?
Nobody likes being painted with a broad brush, and it's infuriating when a man won't take a woman seriously because he assumes that she's simply "being jealous." It's an inescapable stereotype that harms our careers and relationships.
Still, to address these types of harmful stereotypes, it's important not to shy away from them. We decided to look into the science of jealousy and determine whether men and women process the emotion differently—and, if so, whether those differences have a biological basis.
Men and women get jealous about different types of things, and they differ greatly in how they respond to those triggers.
Before we get started, we want to make a few important points clear: Statistics don't apply to individual cases, and reputable studies can easily arrive at inaccurate results. Keep those in mind before using this piece in an internet argument (and, by the way, men are more likely to dominate internet arguments, but that's an entirely different discussion).
With that said, we weren't quite prepared for what we found. For starters...
Current research suggests that yes, women are more likely to display certain types of jealousy than men.
Hold on, guys. Don't start celebrating just yet, because we've got some major caveats.
In a 2005 study, researchers evaluated nearly 500 fifth- through ninth-grade participants, providing them with hypothetical scenarios and asking whether those scenarios made the participants upset. Girls were more jealous over their friends and non-friends than boys. According to one of the study's authors, this was perhaps because "girls tend to expect more kindness, loyalty, commitment and empathy from friends than boys do."
Of course, this research didn't measure romantic jealousy, and the team didn't evaluate any adults. With adults, the matter becomes considerably more complicated—as does just about everything in adulthood.
In a population-based twin study, Swedish researchers found that women were more likely to display jealousy than men when confronted with emotional or sexual infidelity. (By the way, we wouldn't be doing our jobs if we didn't point out that the researchers used something called the Screening Across the Lifespan of Twins Younger sample—or SALTY, for short.) The study also showed that jealousy probably has an evolutionary component.
However, this doesn't mean that men aren't more prone to feeling certain types of jealousy. That's because...
Research indicates that men and women process jealousy differently.
Quick: Would you be more upset if your partner physically cheated on you, or if your partner fell in love with another person?
Chapman University researchers presented that question to nearly 64,000 Americans and found that about 65 percent of heterosexual women said that they'd be more upset by "emotional infidelity" than "sexual infidelity," as opposed to 46 percent of men.
Heterosexual men are the only ones more likely to be most upset by sexual infidelity.
In bisexual and gay couples, there wasn't as much of a statistical difference between men and women, regardless of the sex of their partners.
However, heterosexual men are more likely to experience jealousy from sexual infidelity than emotional infidelity.
"Heterosexual men really stand out from all other groups," said psychologist and lead author David Frederick in a statement accompanying the study's release. "They were the only ones more likely to be most upset by sexual infidelity."
This gives credence to a fairly common evolutionary theory that isn't perfectly politically correct. Strap in.
Some scientists believe that there's a biological basis to our responses.
Wait, what? Our biology can make us jealous?
Well, potentially. The prevailing theory is that men are more jealous when women cheat because the infidelity could threaten the man's lineage.
"With men, sexual infidelity on the part of a partner provokes a greater upset," Joel Wade, PhD, professor of psychology at Bucknell University, tells HealthyWay. Wade studies mate selection criteria, reactions to infidelity, and love acts from an evolutionary theory perspective. "You can [argue that] worries about sexual infidelity produce more jealousy because it's a paternity-certainty issue."
To be clear, Wade rejects the idea that women are more jealous than a men overall, at least when controlling for social factors. He also says that there's no special difference between the way that the sexes feel jealousy. Wade simply believes men and women get jealous about different types of things, and that they differ greatly in how they respond to those triggers.
"There's a sex difference in the responses to jealousy," Wade says. "Men are more likely to respond in a violent fashion than women are. Socialization plays a role, because, more historically, being aggressive [or] violent was considered more of a masculine than a feminine thing."
Wade also suggests that biology could play a role here. Men have higher levels of testosterone than women, and higher testosterone levels are associated with "violent physical responses."
Like we said, guys, don't start celebrating: You're more likely to get whipped into a frenzy after you discover that your partner is cheating.
Why, then, are heterosexual women more likely to experience emotional jealousy?
Possibly for a similar evolutionary reason—they want the man to remain close to the family unit and therefore see emotional attachment as a threat to that unit's stability.
We asked Wade whether socialization could also play a role in the way that people respond to jealousy.
"Typically the reactions are very quick, without a lot of thinking, they're almost automatic," Wade says. "Even though [jealousy] gets reinforced socially, the actions themselves are, you could say, ingrained, hard-wired."
"The socialization pattern is different in the United States compared to, let's say, southeast Asia, or perhaps even a tribe in the Amazon … and the response is similar," he says. "Those people aren't being socialized the same way. How is it that they can have the same basic response? Biology plays a big role here."
We'd add that study participants certainly had time to think about their responses when filling out their questionnaires, so while emotional responses may be biological to a degree, there's still a social factor.
Even so, the science seems pretty clear: Women are more likely to become jealous over emotional attachments, and according to the surveys and studies we could find, they're more likely to experience jealousy overall.
Is there any silver lining here? Sort of.
Jealousy isn't always a bad thing.
"Most people think of jealousy as this horrible, negative thing, which it is a negative emotion, but it's here for a reason," Wade says. "It's actually functional."
As strange as it sounds, evolution plays a role in our emotions, and jealousy evolved for a reason. Some time in our distant past, that response served a vital purpose. Your great-great-great-grandmother's jealousy might be the reason that you're reading this article today.
"There's an area that we look at called mate retention," he says. "...You want the partner to stay with you. Jealousy could provoke mate-retention behaviors, because if somebody else is interested with my partner, or my partner is interested in someone else, then I need to step up my mate-retention behaviors. I could become more loving, give more time, show more commitment. Those would be positive things."
Show your partner that you're jealous, and you'll likely prompt a response; in some cases, that response could keep the relationship together.
Jealous is here for a reason. It's actually functional.
Of course, too much jealousy can be detrimental to a relationship. While a 2013 study found that closer partners tend to experience more jealousy, the authors cautioned against using the findings to justify the emotion.
"The key lesson from this study is that being ready to become jealous over relationship-threatening events is itself a signal that the relationship is worthy of such a strong emotional reaction," the authors wrote.
In other words, jealousy can be a good sign of a healthy relationship, but it's not something to strive for.
"If one gets jealous all the time, that's probably going to create problems, because in any successful relationship with a partner there has to be some degree of trust," Wade says. "If one is giving the message to a partner that they really don't trust them, then that's going to create problems in the relationship."
And while the evolutionary argument is compelling, don't ignore the social factors.
As we wrote earlier, the "obsessed, jealous girlfriend" trope is inescapable, and stereotypes undoubtedly influence the way that women respond to jealousy. Case in point: Remember this girl?
Yes, even our internet memes reinforce the idea that female jealousy is absolutely everywhere (although we still love Laina—seriously, she's awesome). When confronted with these stereotypes (such as in memes or see any teen drama on TV), people are more likely to act badly and conform with those stereotypes. Social factors, however, can be extraordinarily difficult to study.
Research has also linked jealousy to low self-esteem, and in Western countries, there's an enormous self-esteem gap between men and women. It's not much of a stretch to suggest that in a perfectly equal society, the "jealousy gap" would shrink (or even disappear).
Unfortunately, we can't study a perfectly equal society.
Jealousy has both biological and social components, so before you attempt to explain away your partner's emotions as an evolutionary holdover, keep this in mind: The scientific explanations for jealousy are fascinating from an academic perspective, but practically useless in our everyday relationships.