Jealousy? For the Italians it’s the fault of the genes

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With increasing frequency, science finds itself involved in an endeavour to understand and interpret the most distinctive domains of human experience, like feelings and emotions. Following the major advances achieved in genetics and biomedicine, the idea has spread that many aspects of our emotional experience, from shyness to aggressiveness, are biological in origin and depend upon our heredity. Jealousy is no exception. It is one of the commonest emotions, and especially so in the summer, when the sun, the heat and carefree holiday spirits foster relaxed behaviour which provokes quarrels between lovers and attracts public curiosity. Jealousy therefore provides a good opportunity to find out the extent to which public opinion believes that the emotions, like physical features, are determined by the genes.
The majority of Italians have no doubts on the matter: jealousy is inscribed in the genes. According to seven out of ten interviewees, it is the genetic heritage which determines a person’s proneness to jealousy. They believe that jealousy is not caused by upbringing, past experience, or standards of behaviour, but rather by biological make-up. In other words, people are genetically disposed to jealousy.
This widespread belief in the genetic origin of jealousy may be due, at least in part, to public fascination with advances in genetic research, and especially with the mapping of the human genome and the prospects that it holds out. The increasingly frequent announcements that the obesity gene or the ‘intelligence gene’ have been discovered, or that the cancer-causing gene has been decoded, receive wide coverage in the media, and they may have fuelled a deterministic view of the relation between a person’s genetic heritage and his or her personality and behaviour.
On the other hand, belief in the genetic origin of emotions like jealousy seems to be significantly influenced by familiarity with scientific language and the principles of biology. The idea that jealousy is inscribed in the genes, in fact, is most attractive to Italians with medium-to-high educations: fully 80% of respondents with upper-secondary certificates subscribed to it, and so did more than 50% of the graduates interviewed – which is also a substantial percentage.
A further interesting factor contributes to the complexity of opinions about the biological origins of jealousy. Contrary to what one might expect, the tendency to regard jealousy as genetically determined is not necessarily accompanied by the evolutionary view that the emotion functions as some sort of mechanism to protect the couple and thus ensure survival of the species.
Only 29.3% of the interviewees believed that jealousy had assisted the evolution of the human species. Yet more than 60% did not agree. In other words, the majority thought that, although jealousy part was an integral part of the human genetic make-up, it had not given mankind an adaptive advantage – but nor, on the other hand, had it obstructed human development and evolution.
The co-presence of these perceptions is not surprising. It finds plausible explanation in the deeply-rooted tendency in our culture and traditions to view jealousy as harmful, as a painful and unwanted emotion about which we should be ashamed. Almost one Italian in every two, in fact, is convinced that jealously is a disease to be treated with appropriate therapies.
Interestingly, this opinion was influenced by the characteristics of the interviewee. For example, the view that jealous is a pathology was expressed more by women than by men (56% of female interviewees as opposed to 42.3% of the males). And it grew increasingly common with age: whilst around one-fifth (23%) of young people described jealousy as an illness, the percentage was more twice as high, indeed reaching fully two-thirds, among interviewees aged over 65 (66.7%). Conversely, a higher educational qualification was associated with a more ‘normal’ view of jealousy: the percentage of graduates who rejected the view of jealousy as a pathology was more than double that among the less well-educated: 70.5% compared with 31.7% of respondents who had not completed compulsory schooling, while the percentage among those who had lower-secondary or upper-secondary school certificates was 56%.

In general, therefore, there are two different perceptions of jealousy. One in every two Italians regard jealousy as a natural and normal state of mind, an emotion intrinsic to human behaviour, notwithstanding its sometimes harmful consequences and its limited contribution to human evolution. This view is most widespread among young people – who are also more willing than other age groups to admit that they are jealous – and among highly-educated Italians, who are more likely to have some familiarity with science.
For the rest of Italians, however, jealousy has a negative and pathological connotation, and should therefore be regarded and treated as an illness. Given that this perception is most frequent among the elderly and the medium-to-low educated, one may assume that it is connected with a traditional and somewhat stereotyped view of social and affective relations, and of the emotions correlated with them.
The most interesting aspect, however, is that central to both perceptions is the idea that jealousy is genetic in origin. This finding is indicative not only of the persuasiveness acquired by the image of mankind as a purely biological being, but also of the direction in which public desires and demands may move in regard to science and medicine. The assumption that all a person’s features, not only physical but also behavioural and emotional, are inscribed in his or her DNA, and can therefore be decodified, fuels the expectation that it will be possible to intervene, with appropriate gene therapy, in any whatever anomaly or dysfunction of the body or the personality – including those mental states difficult to accept or control like jealousy or anger.
Aside from the specific case of jealously, perhaps not to be underestimated is the influence of similar perceptions on the relations between the public and the medical-scientific community. Indeed, one may expect in the near future that further demands will be made for the ‘medicalization’ of human experience, in its most disparate aspects, and at the same time, the deresponsibilization of the individual for his or her attitudes and emotions, which will be removed from the sphere of personal liability.

This article was published by La Stampa’s TuttoScienzeTecnologia on the 17th of august, 2005.

The survey was conducted by means of CATI-method telephone interviews with a sample of 1029 subjects, stratified by gender, age, and geographical area of residence, and representing the Italian population aged 15 and over.