How Jealousy Works

Emotion Image Gallery Jealousy between siblings is a normal part of growing up in a multichild household. See more emotion pictures.
©iStockphoto/Monika Adamczy

Of all the emotions humans show, jealousy is one of the most common and unsettling. It tends to bring out the worst in us, even though most of us know better. It's an age-old problem, having been recorded since biblical times, and no doubt experienced even before that. And it's not limited to humans, either. Even wild animals like chimpanzees and elephants exhibit jealous tendencies.

Long-surviving tales of jealousy include David, the second king of Israel, who until he triumphed against the Philistines and the legendary Goliath, was well liked by King Saul. Following these substantial successes, however, Saul forced him out of the country, due to a ripe case of jealousy. David had the last laugh, though -- he eventually became king of Israel and built quite an empire for himself.

The Greek goddess Hera, wife to the philandering Zeus, may not have been jealous without cause, but she certainly expressed her displeasure in unflattering ways, choosing to harass her husband's lovers and children, rather than dealing with his infidelity directly.

If jealousy impacts humans negatively, then why do we continue to behave this way? Cultural psychologists tend to believe that humans are inherently jealous, simply because our jobs, relationships and material goods mean a lot to us, and we don't want to lose them.

A popular misconception about jealousy is that it is the same as envy. In fact, the feeling of envy refers to wanting something that someone else has, such as a fast car or a house in the Hamptons. Jealousy, however, is more aptly described as the fear of losing something (a lover, promotion, friend, etc.) to someone else. "Jealousy is an anticipatory emotion. It seeks to prevent loss," said Ralph Hupka, Professor of Psychology, Emeritus at California State University at Long Beach. "Jealousy causes us to take precautionary measures. Should those fail and the partner has an affair, the new situation arouses anger, depression, disappointment, and so on."

In this article we'll delve further into the nitty-gritty of jealousy, when it begins and how it can quickly get out of control. You will also learn about the different types of jealousy and how experts say it can be controlled. We'll start with the people most likely to be jealous. Who are they? You'll see on the next page.