In his 2001 book The Dangerous Passion, University of Texas psychologist David Buss writes that jealousy can expose romantic partners to “extreme danger.” It can destroy previously harmonious relationships, he says, and can shatter trust in a simple crashing moment. Anyone who’s read Shakespeare's tragedy Othello—about a man so blinded by jealousy that he kills his wife—knows this scenario. But as it turns out, being blinded isn’t purely metaphorical: jealousy can, literally, make us unable to see.
New research from the University of Delaware, published in the April issue of the American Psychological Association journal Emotion, found in a lab study of heterosexual couples that women who were made to feel jealous of their partners (who were also present) became so distracted by the emotion that they were unable to spot visual targets on a computer screen. “The language of social relationships is filled with visual metaphor,” write the authors, psychology professors Steven Most and Jean-Philippe Laurenceau, but “the influence of social emotions—known to affect moods, behaviors and physical health—appears to permeate so deeply as to affect processes involved in visual awareness.”
That visual awareness involved the female members of 25 couples, averaging 19 to 20 in age, sitting near their partners at two separate computer screens. While the men looked at a series of photos that included graphic pictures of women and were asked to rate their attractiveness, the women were tasked with pointing out landscape images (the “targets”) amid rapid streams of images. The result? The more jealous the women became, the more they were distracted by the images on their partner’s screens, the less they could see the targets on their own screens.
So, what about male jealousy, you ask? Well, the researchers didn’t test the men—at least not yet. (But, if culture tells us anything, we’d guess the results won’t be much different.) Until then, say the researchers, lovers, poets, and philosophers will continue to debate whether love is blind—but we can all rest assured that jealousy is.