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Jealousy is an emotion experienced by one who perceives that another person is giving something that s/he wants or feels is due to them (often attention, love, respect or affection) to an alternate. For example, a child will likely become jealous when their parents give sweets to a sibling but not to them. An adult may become jealous if they observe that their lover is flirting with someone else, perceiving a threat to their relationship. While the child's jealousy might be assuaged if they received candy from their parents as well, the jealous lover desires that the affections of their lover be directed exclusively to themselves and would not be assuaged by an equal share of attention.

Some authorities (e.g., Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 1971) distinguish between jealousy and envy on the ground that jealousy involves the wish to keep what one has, and envy the wish to get what one does not have. (Thus, the child is jealous of her parents' attention to a sibling, but envious of her friend's new bicycle.) This is problematic in that, e.g., a teenager may be jealous of the affection a rock star bestows on his fiancée, even though the teenager neither has nor thinks she has that affection herself. Others suggest that the key difference between envy and jealousy is the involvement of a third party: it is not merely that the jealous person wishes to have the attention for himself, or that the third party who is getting it would not get it, but rather that he wishes the person of whom he is jealous would not give that attention to a third party. Some even claim a distinction between jealousy and envy insofar as while envy is the carnal desire to possess something that is not yours, jealousy is the righteous feeling that one has towards that which is rightly his (such as a spouse's fidelity).

Another common distinction between jealousy and envy is that envy is the desire for something in general (one envies a friend's new bike), whereas jealousy is the desire to have something in particular, and to take it from someone else (one is jealous of a friend's girlfriend).

For this kind of reason, some have suggested that jealousy most centrally concerns one's perception of oneself. (Jeffrie Murphy, William Pennell Rock). The perception that a person whose evaluation matters a great deal to us prefers someone else can make us doubt our own worth.

Social psychology

Love Letter from a Rival
A youth catches his boyfriend with a love letter from another.
Miyagawa Isshô, ca. 1750; Panel from a series of ten homoerotic scenes, on a shunga-style painted hand scroll (kakemono-e); sumi, color and gofun on silk. Private collection.

The incidence of jealousy and the types of situations that give rise to jealousy vary across societies.

Margaret Mead reports a number of societies in which a man would offer his wife or daughter to others for sexual purposes, as well as cases in which "first wives" in polygamous societies would welcome additional wives as enhancing their prestige and lightening their work. She contrasts the Dobuans, whose lives were dominated by jealous guardianship of everything from wives to yams, with the Samoans, among whom jealousy was rare.

It is possible that Mead's attribution of these differences to social arrangements is correct. Stearns similarly notes that the social history of jealousy among Americans shows a near absence of jealousy in the eighteenth century, when marriages were arranged by parents and close community supervision all but precluded extramarital affairs. As these social arrangements were gradually supplanted by the practice of dating several potential partners before marriage and by more fluid and anonymous living arrangements, jealousy as a social phenomenon correspondingly increased.

However, others have questioned Mead's findings about Samoa (Freeman, 1983; Freeman, 1989; Buss, 2000; Buss, 2001). Mead spent much of her time living in a nearby hotel, rather than among the Samoans themselves, and relied heavily on two individuals rather than direct observation. These two individuals later admitted to giving Mead false information. Jealousy occurred far more frequently than Mead suggested and often resulted in violence. The Samoans have a word for such violence: fua. It appears no society has the freedom from jealousy which Mead attributed to the Samoans. The incidence of jealousy may vary across cultures, but jealousy remains a cultural universal nonetheless.

By the late 1960s and the 1970s, jealousy — particularly sexual jealousy — had come to be seen as both irrational and shameful in some quarters, particularly among advocates of free love. Advocates and practitioners of non-exclusive sexual relationships, believing that they ought not to be jealous, sought to banish or deny jealous reactions to their partners' sexual involvement with others. Many found this unexpectedly difficult, though for others, conscious blocking of the jealous reaction is relatively easy from the start, and over time the reaction can be effectively extinguished. Some studies suggest that jealousy may be reduced in multilateral relationships where there is a clear hierarchy of relationships or where expectations are otherwise fixed. (See Smith and Smith, Beyond Monogamy.) Contemporary practitioners of what is now called polyamory (multiple intimate relationships) for the most part treat jealousy as an inevitable problem, best handled by accommodation and communication. In mainstream society, although jealousy still carries connotations of insecurity, there is a greater tendency to accept it as a normal and expected reaction to a relationship threat.

Individual coping

Where jealousy produces excessive discomfort or relationship difficulties, several strategies are available to reduce it. These include desensitization through controlled exposure to the jealousy-producing stimulus, revision of the underlying judgments (where these are irrational) through cognitive therapy, unearthing and addressing childhood conflicts that predispose one to jealousy, and changing the dynamics of the relationship to disrupt the jealousy-producing cycle. (Malach-Pines, Romantic Jealousy.)

Also, certain religious codes, such as Christianity and Buddhism teach that individuals must learn to "let go" of the things they desire most, thereby freeing themselves from the ultimately harmful effects of the emotion.


The paraphilia in which a person is sexually aroused by jealousy is known as zelophilia.


The word stems from the French jalousie, formed from jaloux (jealous), and further from Low Latin zelosus (full of zeal), and from the Greek word for "ardour, zeal" (with a root connoting "to boil, ferment"; or "yeast"), originally a condition of zealous emulation.

The jealousy of God, as in Exodus xx. 5, "For I, the Lord thy God, am a jealous God," has been defined by Pusey (Minor Prophets, 1860) as the attribute "whereby he does not endure the love of his creatures to be transferred from him".

"Jealous", by etymology, is however, only another form of "zealous", and the identity is exemplified by such expressions as "I have been very jealous for the Lord God of Hosts" (i Kings xix. 10).

See also

References & Bibliography

Key texts


  • Buss, D. M. (2000). The dangerous passion: Why jealousy is as necessary as love and sex. New York: The Free Press. ISBN 075676548X
  • Buss, D.M., & Haselton, M.G. (2005). The evolution of jealousy. Trends in Cognitive Science, 9, 506-507. Full text
  • Bernhard, Kathleen F. Jealousy. 1986.
  • Buss, D.M., (2001). Human Nature and Culture: An Evolutionary Psychological Perspective. Journal of Personality, 69, 955-978. Full text
  • Buss, D.M. (2000). The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy is as Necessary as Love and Sex. New York, NY: Free Press.
  • Freeman, D. (1983) Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.
  • Freeman, D. (1989) 'Fa'apu'a Fa'amu and Margaret Mead', American Anthropologist, 91, 1017-22.
  • Lyons, William. Emotions.
  • Malach Pines, Ayala. Romantic Jealousy: Causes, Symptoms, Cures.
  • Mathes, Eugene W., "Jealousy: The Psychological Data 1992.
  • Mead, Margaret, "Jealousy: Primitive and Civilised," in Samuel Schmalhausen and V.F. Calverton, eds., Woman's Coming of Age (New York: Liveright, 1931) 35-48.
  • Murphy, Jeffrie. 'Jealousy, Shame, and the Rival.'
  • Rock, William Pennell. 'Jealousy and the Abyss.'
  • Shackelford, T.K., Voracek, M., Schmitt, D.P., Buss, D.M., Weekes-Shackelford, V.A., Michalski, R.L. (2004). Romantic jealousy in early adulthood and in later life. Human Nature, 15, 3, 283-300. Full text
  • Stearns, Peter, Jealousy: The Evolution of an Emotion in American History
  • James R. Smith and Lynn G. Smith, Beyond Monogamy: Recent Studies of Sexual Alternatives in Marriage (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974).


Additional material



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This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

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