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Emotional Responses to Infidelity: Investigating Jealousy with a National Sample


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Principal Investigator(s):

Melanie C. Green
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Email: mcgreen@unc.edu
Home page: http://www.unc.edu/~mcgreen/

John Sabini
University of Pennsylvania

Sample size: n=777
Field period: 01/16/2003- 01/31/2003

 

Abstract:

We tested the evolutionary hypothesis that males are more bothered by sexual than emotional infidelity, while the reverse is true of females (e.g., Buss, 2000; Buss, Larson, Westen, & Semmelroth, 1992). This hypothesis has been supported in many studies, but almost all of these have used undergraduate samples and have relied upon a forced-choice question asking about "upset" and "distress" in response to infidelity. Our alternative conceptualization of jealousy suggests that there are distinct emotional components of jealousy (specifically, anger and hurt), that did not evolve differently for the two genders (Sabini & Green, under review). The experimental results supported this conceptualization: a majority of both genders said they would be more hurt by an emotional infidelity, but would be angrier and would blame their partner more for a sexual infidelity. We further extended the paradigm by examining the expected effect on the relationship. Participants of both genders were more likely to believe their partner was going to leave them, and were more likely to leave their partners as a result of an emotional rather than a sexual infidelity.

Hypotheses:

We tested the evolutionary hypothesis that males are more bothered by sexual than emotional infidelity, while the reverse is true of females. Specifically, Buss suggested that because of uncertainty of paternity, but certainty of maternity, males are likely to become more jealous because of their mates' sexual infidelity than because of the mates' emotional infidelity; females, on the other hand, face the threat that their mates will withdraw resources from their offspring, and hence are more likely to become upset by signs of resource withdrawal by their mates than by signs of sexual infidelity. Our previous data suggested that this effect may not be robust in non-student samples.

We expected that sexual infidelity would be associated with anger and blame, but emotional infidelity with hurt feelings.

We expected that emotional infidelity would be more likely cause one to leave a partner.

Experimental Manipulation:

Male and female participants were asked to imagine their reactions to sexual and emotional infidelity. Half of the sample responded to forced-choice questions about their emotional reactions and effects of their relationship, while the other half responded to continuous measures of these dependent variables. Half of the continuous-rating participants received the sexual infidelity scenario first; half received the emotional infidelity scenario first. The design is 2 (gender of participants) X 2 (sexual vs. emotional infidelity) X 2 (dichotomous vs. continuous measures). Order of scenarios is counterbalanced in the continuous cells.

Key Dependent Variables:

Forced-choice measures: Half of the sample was asked which of the two sorts of infidelity (sexual versus emotional) would cause them to be more upset, hurt, and angry. They were also asked which sort of infidelity would cause them to blame their partner more, which was more likely to prompt their partner to leave them, and which was more likely to prompt them to leave their partner.

Continuous measures: The other half of the sample was asked the same questions, but they were asked to rate separately the degree to which they would have those reactions to sexual and emotional infidelity.

Summary of Findings:

A total of 777 people (378 male; 399 female) responded to the questionnaire. A significant gender difference emerged on the "upset" variable, in the direction that the original evolutionary hypothesis would predict (a greater percentage of women were more upset over emotional infidelity). However, contrary to original evolutionary hypothesis, a majority of males also selected emotional infidelity as more bothersome (although not significantly so). A majority of both genders said they would be more hurt by an emotional infidelity, but would be angrier and would blame their partner more for a sexual infidelity. Participants of both genders were more likely to believe their partner was going to leave them as a result of an emotional rather than a sexual infidelity. Both men and women were also more likely to leave their partners over an emotional infidelity (but this effect was not significant for males).

Conclusion:

Gender differences in responses to emotional versus sexual infidelity do not appear to be robust in a general population sample. We see our data as supporting Harris's (2003) view that jealousy is an emotion made up of other states, e.g., anger, hurt feelings, and other emotions (see DeSteno et al., 2002; Hupka, 1984; Parrott and Smith, 1993; White & Mullen, 1989). We find it highly plausible that these states evolved and were pressed into mate-guarding service, thus constituting the emotion of jealousy. We have no evidence, and know of no evidence, to suggest that these lower-level states are sexually dimorphic, and, therefore, we would not expect jealousy to be sexually dimorphic.

References:

Green, M.C. and Sabini, J. 2006. Gender, SES, age, and jealousy: Emotional responses to infidelity in a national sample. Emotion. 6:330-334.

Sabini, J., & Green, M.C. 2004. Emotional responses to sexual and emotional infidelity:
Constants and differences across genders, samples, and methods. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30:1375-1388.


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