On Friend Jealousy

We humans have many kinds of relationships with each other. We can be lovers, parents, children, teachers, students, priests, parishioners, customers, suppliers, drivers, passengers, writers, readers, etc.

Jealousy can make sense in most of these relations. Jealousy is a fear that potential associates will choose instead to associate with someone else. I can be jealous that my kids will like their mom better than me, that my students may prefer other teachers to me, or that blog readers may prefer to read other blogs.

Role specialization is a robust way to limit jealousy. If dads have different parental roles than moms, then my kids could like me best as a dad, and their mom best as a mom, and I less have to fear that they will substitute her for me. If I teach a particular course well, then my students can like me for being good at my course, and others for teaching their courses well, and I need less fear that few students will want me to teach them.

We use role specialization a lot, to great benefit, in our business and work lives. And traditional societies greatly specialized their personal and family relations. Genders, ages, and classes all had distinct roles to play. Wives and mistresses were even clearly distinguished. Since we have today weakened such role specialization, we now have more scope for jealousy in our personal and family relations.

One interesting exception is friendship. While friends sometimes specialize into more particular friendship roles, like “golf buddy”, and we are sometimes jealous of others supplanting our friend roles, such as “best friend”, both of these tendencies are noticeably weaker relative to non-friend relations. So much so that when people try to talk you out of being jealous in some other area, they usually point to friendships, as in, “You can have lots of friends without jealousy; why not do that with lovers too?”

Why treat friendships so differently? My guess is that friends, more than other relations, function in large part to cement our position in larger social coalitions. As a social species, we play a lot of coalition politics, and in coalition politics one needs many allies who themselves have many other allies. For this function jealousy makes a lot less sense. If my friends have more other friends, that makes them better not worse friends for me, if their function is to cement my position in a larger social alliance.

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  • Stephen Diamond

    What coalitions might be supposed to have existed among foragers? Have any evolutionary biologists or psychologists speculated? (Seem like a good topic for a novelistic treatment.)

  • Richardsilliker

    Best guess.

    We can thank liberal dogma  for the greater scope for jealousy.
    Friendships are interpersonal while families are intrapersonal.

    • Richardsilliker

       Sorry, bad explanation.

      Friendships are more abstractly bound while families are innately bound.

  • Oligopsony

    Do people with a dulled (heightened) sense of sexual jealousy tend to have a dulled (heightened) sense of nonsexual jealousy as well? My prior would lean towards “yes,” and the few standout cases of either I know personally seem to go together, but I don’t have more than anecdata and personal experience.

  • John

    “You can have lots of friends without jealousy; why not do that with lovers too?”

    Seriously, has anyone ever made that argument? This is the worst example of reasoning by analogy I have seen in my entire life.

    • Stephen Diamond

      Robin (and Katja) are into solving problems they themselves discover. I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. (I fear you may be the victim of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s confused rants against “reasoning by analogy.”)

    • Drewfus

      “This is the worst example of reasoning by analogy I have seen in my entire life.”

      Why?

    • Evil_Spock

      Yes. And the fact that you’re not running into this among your friends and associates strongly suggests you are doing something right.

  • Stephen Diamond

    My guess is that friends, more than other relations, function in large part to cement our position in larger social coalitions. As a social species, we play a lot of coalition politics, and in coalition politics one needs many allies who themselves have many other allies.

    That friendship doesn’t necessarily issue in desire for exclusivity seems obvious: if our friends have more friends, they can do more for us. But that this implies coalition politics seems an unwarranted stretch unless accepting certain evo psych posits about paleolithic coalitions—for who knows what purpose—is based on evidence.

    “Social species” don’t necessarily engage in coalition politics; the phenomenon seems unknown among the most numerous social species, the social insects. Apes engaged in coalition politics, because there was something to ally for: vast differences in status resulted in huge differences in welfare. Among egalitarian foragers, the status drive was both suppressed culturally and attenuated by natural selection, and status equality enforced, leaving one to wonder what the presumed “coalitions” might have sought.

  • Drewfus

    “Role specialization is a robust way to limit jealousy.”

    What if the under-attentive subject doesn’t see these roles as being similarly specialized? Ex: Female parent, male parent, rather than fav mom and fav dad? Being aware of this while continuing to define your role narrowly is more rationalization than robustness.

    “If my friends have more other friends, that makes them better not worse friends for me, if their function is to cement my position in a larger social alliance.”

    As long as the cementing carries political implications. To the extent it does not (that is, other reasons for having friends*), an otherwise good argument is undermined.

    You could rationalize away a friends relatively greater attentiveness to other friends on the basis that the friend is a gateway to a wider social network. However, that friend’s relative neglect of you is still an issue unless you can move your own attention to other friends. If not, the opportunity for jealousy still exists.

    “You can have lots of friends without jealousy; why not do that with lovers too?”

    Why not take the network broadening attitude/point-of-view to lovers?

    What actually is the point of being jealous? Is it a motivator for improving role playing, and thereby gaining popularity? Are the subjects of jealousy meant to become aware of the jealousy, or is it something we want to keep hidden? If the former, it acts as a signalling device – it would show to the subject of the jealousy that we care about them, and probably more than they realize. Do the subjects then exploit this knowledge (as it implies a dependancy of sorts)? What about when the knowledge of the jealousy reaches the friend’s friends? Should we suppress our jealousies, or would that be harmful to us?

    * Friends tend to agree with us, and see the world from our points-of-view, and our worldview. Friends are (relatively) non-competitive with respect to perceptions. Friends are a means for pre-processing inputs. This is stress-relieving, and attention freeing. That would be an example of my perception of the essence of intelligent systems; the capacity to constrain inputs in a non-harmful (to the organism) manner.

  • Traveler26

    “If my friends have more other friends, that makes them better not worse
    friends for me, if their function is to cement my position in a larger
    social alliance.”

    This is a manifestation of

    1) Concern over loss of the benefits of the relationship

    IMO this factor exists but is only part of the picture.  Two additional factors affecting relationship jealousy are

    2) Concern over the welfare of the other person
    3) Concern over how much value the other person places on the relationship (& thus indirectly on oneself)

    Consider, for example, which of the following scenarios would tend to make the typical person (not you, of course:-) more jealous:

    A) Threat of losing some of  friend X’s attention due to X’s having a first child
    B) Threat of losing some of friend X’s attention due to X’s spending more time with other friends.

    If (1) were the whole story, jealousy would be typically be bigger in A than in B.  But IMO a little introspection – scratch that, a little reflection on typical human nature – suggest that in reality it’s the opposite:  People typically find A *less* threatening than B.  Why?  Because of (2) and (3).

    Another factor relevant to relationship jealousy is

    4) People typically have a greater expectation of loyalty from family members and spouses than from friends.

    Factor (4) (which we might call the “blood-should-be-thicker-than-water” factor) doesn’t bear on A vs B but does IMO further explain why friend jealousy tends to be weaker than family jealousy.

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  • Trevor Blake

    “Jealousy is a fear” … is one form of jealousy but not the only form of jealously. Monotheists describe their deity as jealous by rights, not fear. Political candidates and job applicants want to be chosen and followed over others for reasons that can include fear but are not limited to fear.