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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 244-248 ( 25 June )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/downes.html

Book Review

The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy is as Necessary as Love or Sex
by David M. Buss
London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000.

Reviewed by Michael J. Downes, Undergraduate Psychology Major, College of Saint Benedict & Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA

David M. Buss is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, and has also taught at the University of Michigan and Harvard University. In addition to a multitude of other publications, Buss has written a previous popular book The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating; a textbook Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind; and has edited a collection entitled Sex, Power, Conflict: Evolutionary and Feminist Perspectives.

In contemporary psychology it is difficult if not impossible to be unexposed to Buss’s research and theories. Even in introductory psychology course books such as Weiten’s Themes & Variations, David M. Buss is cited for his work on mate selection preferences as well as other studies. The fact is Buss is one of the biggest names in Evolutionary Psychology and is commonly referred to as a “giant” in the field. One reason for the success Buss has generated is his extensive collaboration with colleagues in the United States and elsewhere.

Evolutionary Psychology itself has been unappreciated by the science of psychology, generally speaking of course, until very recently. Buss however has been conducting research and developing his evolutionary theories on human passions for over a decade. His attention has been centered mainly on how evolution sheds light on relationships and marriage. This book is his most recent overview of his theories and research, focusing on jealousy and infidelity and their role in relationships.

The Dangerous Passion is divided into nine chapters, with the earlier ones establishing a base composed of theories on evolution, jealousy, and infidelity. The latter chapters progress into more complex concepts and discuss how these various models interrelate. Throughout the book numerous studies are given as premises for the theories Buss poses, along with many case study examples.

The first chapter gives the book its title “The Dangerous Passion”, and it sets the stage for the following chapters. Sections in the first chapter are concise introductions to each of the following chapters in the order that they are found in the book. Beginning with a brief explanation of evolution in relation to human behavior, Buss then progresses to how passions are not only relative to love. He shows how passions are closely akin to drives and emotions and have a real and logical function in human behavior. These passions can be viewed as both positive and negative and it is Buss’ belief that with a better understanding of these functions, we may then know what is dysfunctional and what is normal, especially relating to jealousy.

Buss views jealousy as a passion that aided the reproduction of our ancestors over the centuries and is still functional today. Dysfunctional jealousy is the dark side of our adaptation to be jealous; it has several aliases such as the Othello Syndrome, morbid jealousy, psychotic jealousy, pathological jealousy, conjugal paranoia, and erotic jealousy syndrome. However, “moderate” jealousy is seen by Buss as something that coincides with love and he feels one does not exist without the other. Buss uses the analogy of physical pain to describe the usefulness of jealousy. We obviously find pain aversive but it serves a practical function.

The second chapter called “The Jealousy Paradox” explains why painful emotions such as jealousy are necessary in relationships. Other topics are why can jealousy break a relationship when its designed function is maintaining a partner; why love is a endless struggle of happiness and pain; why we need painful emotions like jealousy to mend relationships, and why men and women sometimes don’t cooperate well in relationships.

The jealousy paradox is the notion that jealousy is seen as a sign of love and that when a partner does not display jealous behavior, they are not in love. Yet the paradox is that jealous tendencies can tear a couple’s relationship in two. Buss states, “This book attempts to resolve the paradox.” He then attempts to define the term jealousy utilizing several sources and subsequently addresses the myths about jealousy. The remainder of the chapter evaluates jealousy as a co-evolutionary arms race of reproductive strategies between men and women. Buss demonstrates that jealous behavior is a defense against infidelity and that we display jealous behavior to protect our reproductive interests, which differ between males and females.

Buss also focuses on the strategy when we intentionally invoke jealousy to test the love bond between partners. This also provides a means for a person to get more attention from their mate by saying “others are interested in me, so you’d better appreciate me”. This technique is more commonly used by females and it is one of the recurring themes in the book.

“Jealousy on Mars and Venus” is the title of the third chapter, which is a theme barrowed from the popular book by John Gray. This chapter highlights where men and women conflict and comply in their relationships and in their jealousy. Many studies have found that males and females are equally as jealous but the reasons for jealousy differ. Buss shows why males become more jealous from acts of sexual infidelity and women tend to be more jealous in response to emotional infidelity. This is because a man is concerned with making sure his wife’s offspring are truthfully his; if he invests his time and resources into another man’s child it is called cuckoldry. Cuckoldry is a males’ biggest reproductive fear because he cannot always be sure the offspring he is investing in are his. The female however is 100% sure that her offspring are her own but her biggest reproductive dilemma is if her mate is giving his undivided emotional attention to their coupling. If the male develops a strong emotional bond with a rival woman he may give his time and resources to the competition, thereby leaving the original mate and offspring.

Buss makes a point to make sure that most women do care if a man is promiscuous and a majority of men would be offended if their mate became more emotionally involved with another. The crux of the question is which behavior does each sex find more upsetting. These differences in jealousy have been analyzed and supported in a number of studies in the Netherlands, Korea, Japan, and Jamaica, Buss also reviews studies on homosexual men and women. The study on gays showed a reversal of jealousy roles, where males tend to be more distressed if their partner were to commit emotional infidelity, while the women become more jealous if their homosexual partner were to have sexual infidelity.

The fourth chapter is called “The Othello Syndrome”, which comes from Shakespeare’s play Othello. As mentioned before this title is also another term for pathological jealousy. It is here that Buss introduces error management theory, a way of looking at jealousy through the costs and benefits of making type 1 or type 2 errors. This theory states that there are two ways to confront possible infidelity from a partner; either you ignore it and believe there is no infidelity or you react with jealousy. By responding to possible infidelity with jealous behavior, a less costly error is made and it is also more beneficial for one’s reproductive success. This is because the less vigilant error of ignoring possible infidelity could leave a person at a loss of provided resources or a situation of cuckoldry.

Buss also confronts the relation between alcohol intoxication and jealousy. Early studies found male alcoholics to be overwhelmingly pathologically jealous. More current research has shown the relationship to be a modest one, with several other possible explanations, such as the effects of lowering inhibited suspicions, those in bad relationships may turn to alcohol, or that poor judgment as a result of the alcohol intoxication.

Other topics of discussion are mate desirability between sexes in regards to aging, sexual satisfaction, and mate desirability. Buss also covers recent findings of how those who are exposed to a parent’s infidelity during adolescence can exhibit increased jealousy later in life. Buss proposes that a childhood discovery of parental infidelity such as “catching them in the act” can spark a hyperactive sensitivity to their own partner’s possible infidelities further along in their lifetime.

Chapter 5 is concerned with the ugly aspect of jealous behavior in abusive relationships, where pathological jealousy can be a potent catalyst for suicide and murder. Thus, the title given for the fifth chapter is “If I Can’t Have Her, Nobody Can.” Because of the fact that males tend to be the more violent and domineering sex, they sometimes attempt to try to control their mate with abuse. Although violent acts may convince a woman to obey and be faithful, they can also backfire, causing the female to leave the relationship. Buss clarifies that this manner of reasoning is amoral and the research in this area should not be distorted into a justification for spousal abuse.

Homicides and suicides in reference to perceived or real love triangles comprise the remainder of the chapter. Jealousy has been found to be the most likely candidate in homicides of partners and rivals in several studies. Finding that a partner has been unfaithful and being dumped are common precursors. Buss then lists possible explanations of this phenomenon, including the evolutionary perspective as to why some individuals are driven to such lengths.

Chapter 6 examines the relationship types and personality characteristics that may be more or less likely to cheat on their partner. Also, this chapter evaluates what types of behavior in relationships can make a mate more susceptible to leave one partner for another. This chapter’s title is “Secrets and Lies”, and a large portion deals with sex differences in erotic fantasies and casual sex. Unsurprisingly men’s sexual fantasies are about sex with multiple partners and women’s are predominantly about romantic or emotionally involved sex.

One of Buss’s more well known studies is where an attractive male or female confederate confronts a member of the opposite sex asking one of three possible questions: Will you go on a date with me? Will you come back to my place? or Will you have sex with me? The result was a clear-cut sex difference regarding the amount of emotional involvement males and females require before sex. Men were much more likely to express a willingness to engage in sex with a stranger while practically no women would. Other studies of the same nature have been done with modifications to reduce women’s feelings related to lack of safety in a casual sex situation, having no prior knowledge of the person, social norms imposed on women, etc. However, even with these modifications similar results were observed.

The seventh chapter called “Why Women Have Affairs” looks at the potential adaptive value for women to be unfaithful. This involves how and why women might find that a mixed mating strategy is more beneficial for reproduction than monogamy.

As mentioned previously, the reproductive strategies of men and women are in a co-evolutionary spiral, meaning that women have developed defenses and strategies over the millennia to better their reproductive success. One such defense is women’s concealed ovulation that hides when the chances of egg fertilization are at an apex. This gives females an advantage by allowing them a way to be more selective of their mates because men do not know when they must guard her to ensure his genes.

Another topic discussed was the findings of mate preferences for body symmetry. It turns out that women prefer the pheromone scent given off by more symmetrical men. The remainder of the chapter goes over the many advantages and disadvantages of the various mating strategies that men and women might use.

The eighth chapter is labeled “Coping Strategies” and it entails methods we use to cope with infidelity and jealousy. Buss also covers the coping strategies of denial, suppression, and using jealousy as a manipulation technique.

This chapter also gives a critical nod towards therapists who believe that jealousy is dysfunctional, and who attempt to limit or expunge it entirely. Buss criticizes therapy techniques such as systematic desensitization and he feels that it is quite unlikely that eliminating jealousy is even possible. He does say however that extreme jealousy is destructive and therapy for these cases can be beneficial. Buss believes that the attempt to eliminate jealousy can add fuel to the fire by suppressing a natural adaptation we as humans have developed.

The concluding chapter ends on a lighter note and is called “Emotional Wisdom”. This chapter elaborates on the positive aspects of our emotions and how we can improve our lives with the knowledge of our emotions. Buss takes this idea and applies it to bettering our sexual relations and how emotional knowledge can benefit longer-term love such as marriage. Buss integrates the main points throughout the book and further stresses that jealousy is, and has been, a necessary adaptation for reproduction.

All in all I believe that The Dangerous Passion is a success. I feel this way because David Buss is thorough both as a scientist and a writer. This book is designed for a wide spectrum of readers and is also an empirically sound summary of over a decade of research. The author is by no means new to publishing for a variety of audiences and this is his second popular book publication.

Buss integrates his work and the work of colleagues with examples of classic literature and popular contemporary entertainment, giving a sense that jealousy and infidelity is nothing new to our specie. Also, Buss combined reference to large-scale studies along with case examples giving the reader both concrete statistics and real life stories. Another aspect of the book that was refreshing was the camaraderie that Buss displays, giving credit not only to those who work with him in his research but integrating the research of many others. The several cross-cultural studies also demonstrate the empirical thoroughness that Buss brings to the book by limiting biases. Not only did the book include global representation, but it also balanced the perspectives between the sexes, even including studies on homosexuals where they apply.

The ordering of the chapters and concepts was loosely organized sometimes giving the reader a bumpy ride. However, a smooth ride may be too much to ask, given the wide area of topics that were covered encompassing nearly every aspect of relationships. However, since the entire book was focused on interrelated segments, there was no “whiplash” from chapter to chapter.

Since my first college course on psychology I have been exposed to studies conducted by Buss and colleagues. This work is very provocative simply because sex and relationships are an essential part of our lives. Buss’ research is magnetizing also because he has an evolutionary base for his theories and because these controversial areas of human nature have previously been unstudied. I believe that this book should be read by any and all who are interested in human nature, and I especially recommend it for psychologists who refuse to acknowledge that evolutionary psychology is not going away.

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© Michael J. Downes.


Downes, M. J. (2002). Review of The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy is as Necessary as Love or Sex by David M. Buss. Human Nature Review. 2: 244-248.

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