The green-eyed monster

Isn’t jealousy a wonderful state to be in! When you are jealous your muscles become tense, your brain becomes clouded, you contemplate acts that would never otherwise enter your consciousness, and on top of all that your self-esteem takes a battering. Yes, jealousy is a corrosive emotional brew and indulging it is like swallowing hemlock and then waiting for the other person to die. Yet, most of us have at one time or another felt the green-eyed monster tickling the edge of our consciousness and now comes the final cut: not only does jealousy damage you, it changes how you see yourself.

Previous research in the area of relationships has shown that people will change their views in order to become closer to a romantic partner. Whether that is commendable or not, it makes sense. Romantic love is an intense emotional state, but so is jealousy so these researchers wanted to see how being jealous might affect world views.

To study this the researchers had couples complete an online survey where they estimated their personal attributes and skills such as being artistic, musical or athletic. The subjects were then asked to imagine scenarios that might elicit jealousy. For example, they might imagine walking through a shopping centre with their partner when an attractive individual (of the sex that their partner would be attracted to) walks past. In the imagined scene the partner says, “Did you see that guy/girl? That shirt looked really hot on him/her.” On other occasions the subjects were asked to imagine their partner saying, “Don’t you have that shirt? It looks much better on you than him/her.” This second scenario is not meant to generate jealousy.

The subjects were then asked to rate how jealous they felt and were shown a personality profile for their “rival” in the imagined scenarios. This profile of their rival was manipulated by the researchers to contain one personality trait that the subjects had previously said was not true of themselves.

To complete the study the subjects again rated their own personal traits.

Can you see where this is going?

You guessed it; people who thought their romantic partner was interested in someone else suddenly found they were like their rival. So people who had not reported themselves as artistic, when confronted with an artistic rival, discovered that in fact they were a font of renaissance creativity after all. The researchers measured reaction times in the stud to ensure that the subjects were not intentionally trying to change their results so they could compare more favourably to their rival.

What that means then is that people’s innate sense of themselves altered when jealous so that they genuinely saw themselves as being more like their rival. The next step in research is to see whether that change in self-perception leads to changes in behaviour as well.

Robert A Heinlein said, “Jealousy is a disease, love is a healthy condition”, but he might be only half right. If both romantic love and jealousy can make you morph yourself to mimic another then maybe they are both a form of imbalance? If Heinlein is talking about “love” beyond the infatuated, syrup-eyed romance phase, then that is more on the money though. Both infatuation and jealousy, however, are torrid emotional storms that whip your internal seas into a frenzy and if you want to sail those waters you’d best bring a lifeboat.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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