Posted by: yashada | September 9, 2009

Mine is Better than Yours

Yesterday I learnt that my ex-boyfriend has been seeing someone, in fact he has been seeing someone soon after we broke up.

This was news to me. Big News. Because my predictions about how he may behave after our break-up couldn’t be more off the track. From whatever jazz that had happened during the course of the break-up, I doubted if he may go into a relationship soon. So it was a shocker to know he has been up and running!

There was pain. The news didn’t go down too well with me. Pain melted into anger, anger slowly transformed into jealously, a jealousy that grew and finally surged up to a point where I zealously wanted to be in a relationship of my own. And not a relationship with just any guy, but a guy who is better than him. As if it’s a competition that has to be won.

But then the moment passed and I became my old self again. However, a stray thought took a new direction in my head and this is what I asked myself, “Could such jealousy be a driving force in the human species to seek out better mates? Could such jealously actually help a human find a better mate? Could knowing a fact that somebody else has a better mate, drive you enough to find a mate of your own who is better than what your competitor has landed up with?

Society or culture, of course would denounce such jealous thoughts of mine as morally wrong. But if you were in my shoes wouldn’t you have felt the same if you heard about your ex hooking up with someone else? Isn’t this a rather fundamental human emotion? I think it is, and so much so that people do recognise it as one. In fact many forms of media from  sitcoms to bestsellers have used such scenarios as fodder for an episode or a chapter.

Anyway the question I am throwing at you all is – – If this kind of jealousy is indeed such a basic emotion and it leads to a predictable response, then is it strong enough to shape evolutionary trends in the human species?

P.S. Even though this post started out on a personal note, it moved on to a larger question, which, it seems from the comments I have been receiving, is being ignored. Since, this is my “science” weblog, I request you all to leave a comment only if it pertains to the evolutionary question and kindly spare me the therapist’s couch. I have deleted all the comments that did not directly address the question I asked. I am sure your comments were well intentioned, but they were a little out of context in this case. Hope, no hard feelings, ok? 🙂



  1. This is based on my layperson’s undertanding of the term ‘evolution’.

    I don’t know whether human evolution is simple. Human being are not dependent on the natural circumstances and they don’t have to deal with natural calamities the way animals do. Hence our evoluction is not so much about keeping the dominant /stronger traits for survival in the natural world.

    If you were to choose a ‘better’ mate out of jealousy, several things could happen. ‘Better’ in the human world is not necessarily better in evolutionary terms. You may choose a more intelligent mate, who may have deficiencies such as a weak eyesight. You may choose a person who earns more, who may not be physically fit. You may choose any mate, just to spite the one who hurt you – there may be nothing long-term in that.

    So you see, jealousy may trigger a predictable response, but the outcomes depend on far more complicated factors. Human life is not just about surviving through natural selection.

    And on a philosophical note, I don’t think jealousy or any other emotion is larger than life itself.

  2. @ Pranali : Don’t mind, but I think the comment has digressed from its original intent…

    @ Anupamaa : “Hence our evoluction is not so much about keeping the dominant /stronger traits for survival in the natural world.” Are you sure?

  3. I have some very predictable views on it. We have been told since the dawn of religion & social cultures that envy (jealousy) is a mortal sin. I disagree with this narrow minded notion towards a very primal emotion. Without jealousy (as one of the ingredients of our social makeup) I believe, that progress is impossible.

    The moment we are disgruntled by our state of existence, physically, materially or emotionally, we long for a change in lifestyle. For instance (this is my assumption from a very small sample size of observations), people with steady, mundane lives long for a nomadic/tribal sort of an existence with very less strings attached & people with a nomadic/tribal lifestyle love to anchor to something solid every time.

    This affinity towards something we dont have, is I think a basis for envy. Its a perfectly normal response. I had read in a book “six impossible things before breakfast” by Lewis Wolpert (psychologist), where he describes tool making; his theory is that its not just by chance that tools were first made, yes, chance is the biggest element involved in making them, but a state of mind where the person(s) who first designed the tools wanted something more, since they could watch other animals, like monkeys, etc use other objects to break nuts, or reach out for food in crevices with a stick, etc. Proto Humans must have also longed for such an ability to use tools & the opposable thumb made the job thousand times easier.

    For mate selection, we have been numbed down in jealousy terms over the prolonged brainwashing in human culture, to actually affect us at that level. But yes, I cannot disregard the importance of that state of mind. Let me put it bluntly, we arent desperate (some people are) to find a mate, desperation might lead to sure shot envy. Otherwise, we are stable enough to understand the fact that there’s plenty of fish in the sea & its just a matter of time to meet one. The only thing that makes us think in this way is the brainwashing, otherwise we would have jumped (no, pounced) at every possible suitable mate, amorously.

    I sympathize with what you felt when you heard the news & it must have stung (like you said), but then you normalized to your social upbringing, thinking, haste is not worth the effort when you plan to meet someone you want to spend a very long time with. (this is again my assumption & it can be totally wrong).

  4. Hi Yashada,

    Great food for thought. I don’t think that mate selection in human beings is driven by jealousy toward an ex. I believe this feeling of envy is fleeting. You yourself mentioned that the moment passed and you became your old self again. However, I do think it is true that human beings strive to get a better mate than they had previously, perhaps not because of jealousy, but because they believe they deserve better. Anyone is bound to compare the present mate with all the previous mates that the person had and will continue with the present one only if he/she thinks that the latter ‘better’ than all the previous ones. Nobody settles for someone worse than the ex.

    But here’s the catch. We need to define ‘better’. It is difficult, if not impossible, to find a mate better in all aspects than the ex. It depends on what qualities are more important to the person. E.g. a woman may prefer a weaker but dedicated guy to a stronger but indifferent guy. Some women might just prefer the latter (a lesser percentage maybe…or who knows??). So, although it is true that people tend to choose a ‘better’ mate than the ex, the definition of ‘better’ is different for different people. This makes it impossible for evolution to follow a specific trend. For instance in the above example, if we assume that 50% women prefer strength to dedication toward family and 50% prefer vice versa then the definition of a better mate is different for both the groups and both qualities will be equally favored by nature.

    Then again, human sexuality is infinitely complex. Consider homosexuality. Why would a person prefer someone of his/her own sex to the opposite? Because they think same sex partners are ‘better’ for a lot of reasons, emotional compatibility being the foremost. What evolutionary advantage does homosexuality bestow upon them or their parents who must also contain the genes? Nobody is sure.

    Bottom line is, although humans do tend to select ‘better’ mate than the previous, the term ‘better’ is too broad to shape any evolutionary trend.

    • @ Shreemukta- good point about the need to define “better”. That was what was bugging me, but could not untangle the thoughts and so resorted to asking the question out loud in the hope of having some discussion. Thanks 🙂
      Your reply has also led to some random thoughts about this topic. Maybe I’ll pen them down in the next few days.

      • I’ll keep my fingers crossed until then. Glad u liked the comment.

  5. Hi,

    Well, jealousy would not be a criteria for selecting a “better” mate. If that would have been then there would be more males cheating on females and females spending more energy in trying to find the “better” man. This would bring chaos in everything we know,[evolution and selection etc.] jealousy leads you to a point where you would WANT to show the guy who left that you are CAPABLE of doing better than him. So, you would end up trying to prove something that is not really necessary to be doing so [for he will not be interested anyways]. and again… “better” is an individual’s perception.
    Hope, this brings a better insight to your question atleast a little bit.

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