Patterns of paternal investment predict cross-cultural variation in jealous response


Long-lasting, romantic partnerships are a universal feature of human societies, but almost as ubiquitous is the risk of instability when one partner strays. Jealous response to the threat of infidelity is well studied, but most empirical work on the topic has focused on a proposed sex difference in the type of jealousy (sexual or emotional) that men and women find most upsetting, rather than on how jealous response varies1,2. This stems in part from the predominance of studies using student samples from industrialized populations, which represent a relatively homogenous group in terms of age, life history stage and social norms3,4. To better understand variation in jealous response, we conducted a 2-part study in 11 populations (1,048 individuals). In line with previous work, we find a robust sex difference in the classic forced-choice jealousy task. However, we also show substantial variation in jealous response across populations. Using parental investment theory, we derived several predictions about what might trigger such variation. We find that greater paternal investment and lower frequency of extramarital sex are associated with more severe jealous response. Thus, partner jealousy appears to be a facultative response, reflective of the variable risks and costs of men’s investment across societies.

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Fig. 1: Location of study populations.
Fig. 2: Severity ratings and forced-choice responses by respondent sex and culture.
Fig. 3: Influence of predictor variables on severity ratings.

Data availability

The variables used in this study are available at the Open Science Framework:

Code availability

The R code used in our analyses is available at the Open Science Framework:


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We thank the communities that we work with for their contributions and continued good will. B.A.S. acknowledges support from a UCLA Faculty Research Grant and NSF-BCS-1534682, the latter of which also funded S.P.P. as a postdoctoral scholar. J.S. acknowledges support from the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR)–Labex IAST. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information




B.A.S. conceived and designed the experiment. T.B., A.N.C., M.G., M.K., J.K., G.K., S.M.M., S.P.P., E.P., B.A.S., M.K.S., K.S., J.S., C.-Y.S. and K.Y. contributed to data collection. S.P.P., B.A.S. and R.M. analysed the data. B.A.S. and S.P.P. wrote the paper. All authors provided comments and approved the final draft.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Brooke A. Scelza or Sean P. Prall.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information: Primary Handling Editor: Stavroula Kousta.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary methods, Supplementary results, Supplementary Tables 1–10, Supplementary Figs. 1–30, Supplementary References

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Scelza, B.A., Prall, S.P., Blumenfield, T. et al. Patterns of paternal investment predict cross-cultural variation in jealous response. Nat Hum Behav 4, 20–26 (2020).

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