Christine Harris, a psychology professor at University of California San Diego was visiting her parents and their three Border Collies when she noticed something happen in front of her eyes.
“I’d pet two of them at a time and it wouldn’t have been surprising if that had made the third want my attention, too,” she said.
But what intrigued her was that the two dogs she was petting would show aggression to one another. One dog would knock her hand away from the other, so she was the sole object of affection.
“To me, that really fit the core motivation of jealousy,” she said.
She started a study in which she had dog owners focus their attention on a photo book, a toy dog that moved and barked, and a Halloween candy bucket.
Both toy dog and the bucket were treated like dogs and the owners pet them, and talked to them the way they would to their own pets. The dogs reacted the least to the book, and had the most negative response when their owners seemed to be interacting with another animal. To Harris, this suggests a basic instinct to express annoyance when a rival is seen receiving attention, even if the dog is otherwise happy to be ignored.
The study used only 36 dogs but Harris thinks that it’s important to get to the root of jealousy.
“It suggests to me that some of our ideas about the nature of jealousy, like that it requires complex cognition, are incorrect,” she said.
Texas Tech University professor Sybil Hart, who studies infant jealousy and wasn’t involved in the study, agreed.
“Until recently, almost all the research on jealousy had to do with sexual jealousy in adults, and even that was mostly looking at men,” Hart said.
But now researchers are asking how jealousy evolved according to Hart. Her work, which performs similar experiments to Harris’s but on infant humans, also suggests a more basic, primordial root for the emotion.
“It’s that very basic response of, ‘but that’s my mommy’s lap,’” Hart said.
And although responses can vary from mild displeasure to violent outbursts, the reaction seems constant.
“Seeing how jealousy develops is important because it’s hard to understand anything in adults without knowing how it got there,” she said.
And once we understand what baseline of jealousy is basic animal instinct, Hart said, we can decide what aspects of jealousy are unhealthy and can be fought back. Study author Harris agreed.
“Jealousy has tremendous human consequences,” Harris said.
“And for adult humans it’s very complex. We think about these experiences after they occur, wondering if they mean we’re unloveable or ugly, or if we’re going to lose our best friend or our lover. It’s a very rich emotion.”
But you don’t need higher cognition to get jealous.
“These results suggest that all of that isn’t required. All you need is a loved one and a rival,” Harris said.
Source: Washington Post