Jealousy isn’t usually seen as a positive experience, but one researcher at Oklahoma State University is studying how jealousy among friends can actually be beneficial.
Dr. Jaimie Krems, an assistant professor in psychology, recently published a study focused on how jealousy may help us keep friends.
“Friends are important sources of emotional support, as well as materials support, like help when we’re in need, and social support, such as having our backs in inevitable conflicts with other people,” Krems said. “In fact, friendships are so beneficial to us that some suggest sustaining them is the next best thing we can do for our health behind quitting smoking.”
Friendships don’t always last, though, she said. In particular, friendships can be threatened by other people. She called people’s emotional responses to this threat friendship jealousy.
“We explored what evokes this emotion, and whether this emotion has features that would make it well-suited to meet the recurrent challenge of hanging onto our friends when our friends inevitably meet and befriend new people,” Krems said.
Across 11 studies, Krems and her team found that people feel greater jealousy when closer friendships are threatened, and that friendship jealousy is attuned more to some threats (someone replacing you in your best friend’s affection) than intuitive ones (your best friend spending more time with someone else).
“For example, people feel more friendship jealousy when our friends make new friends than new romantic partners,” Krems said. “This is because we do different things for our best friends than their romantic partners do, and so best friends’ romantic partners are less likely to replace us.”
Like all emotions, jealousy is an adaptive emotion. This means that the emotion arose over evolutionary time to help solve a recurrent problem faced by our ancestors, Krems said.
“Friendship jealousy prompts us to engage in ‘friend guarding,’ a suite of behavior that helps us prevent the loss or defection of our friends to other people,” she said.
An interdisciplinary team was assembled for this research.
“Social psychology is a team sport; this particular work leverages interdisciplinary evidence — from social, developmental, cognitive psychology, evolutionary social science, ethnography, animal behavior, social network analysis,” Krems said.
The team induced people to feel emotion in real time, gleaned responses to hypothetical scenarios, employed behavioral choice paradigms such as asking people where they would seat their friends and interlopers at a dinner party, and engaged participants in recall of real-world events.
“Previous work in developmental psychology suggested that these feelings were solely negative, and perhaps we should feel shame for experiencing such jealousy,” Krems said. “The perspective we take asks instead why such a negative emotion would persist if it didn’t give rise to some benefits.”
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