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(Not) Bringing up Baby: How Jealousy Influences Reproductive Readiness and Parental Investment

July 25, 2013

By Sarah E. Hill & Danielle J. DelPriore (Texas Christian University)

For many couples, receiving the news that they are expecting their first child is a thrilling experience. The period that follows is often marked by a flurry of activity aimed at preparing their lives for the arrival of their newest family member. Whether researching names, decorating the nursery, or registering for baby gifts, pregnancy can be a period of great emotional closeness and intimacy for expectant parents. However, imagine for a moment how this experience might change if one member of the couple suspected that their partner was romantically involved with someone else. In such a case, the excitement of starting a family would likely be eclipsed by feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. For women, this anxiety would likely be rooted in the possibility of losing investment of precious resources – including money, time, and emotional support – from her partner. Will her partner abandon her for his lover, leaving her to care for their child alone? For men, this anxiety would likely be rooted in these concerns in addition to anxiety about paternity. If his partner is involved with someone else, can he ever be sure that he is the biological father of this unborn child?

It is difficult to imagine a situation in which the possibility of infidelity is more costly than in the context of having and caring for children. For men, infidelity on the part of their romantic partner opens up the possibility that they are not the biological father of children borne from their mate (i.e., cuckoldry).  Such an outcome is particularly costly from an evolutionary perspective as it opens up the possibility that he will unknowingly invest his time, energy, and resources in a child that is not biologically his (Trivers, 1972). Although women do not face the problem of compromised maternity from infidelity, they too can experience diminished reproductive success as a result of their partner’s betrayal. For a woman, an unfaithful partner increases the likelihood of losing critical resource investment for her and her unborn child, an outcome that could mean the difference between life and death for herself and her offspring.

Because the ultimate associations between jealousy and evolutionary outcomes are borne in the domain of reproduction, an evolutionary approach predicts that the experience of jealousy should have important implications for men’s and women’s desire to start a family and invest in children. First, because this emotion signals a threat to the integrity of one’s romantic relationship, experiencing jealousy should decrease both men’s and women’s reproductive readiness and desire to have a baby. Second, because jealousy is associated with the threat of compromised paternity, but not maternity, jealousy should exert sex-differentiated effects on men’s and women’s desired level of investment in a soon-to-arrive child.

We tested these hypotheses in three experiments that were recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Hill & DelPriore, 2013). Across each of these experiments, we activated feelings of jealousy by having men and women write about three occasions when they felt concerned about possible infidelity within the context of their romantic relationship. Participants in the control condition were asked to write about three times they experienced academic failure. After the essay writing manipulation, participants in Studies 1 and 2 completed measures of parenting interest. Participants in Study 3 were asked to indicate how much time they would ideally spend performing 22 duties related to childcare (see table 1).HillTable1

Across each of our experiments, we found evidence that jealousy plays an important role parenting interest and investment decisions. Studies 1 and 2 revealed that experimentally activating jealousy led highly jealous men and women to experience a diminished desire for children. Study 3 found that infidelity concerns also have implications for men’s, but not women’s, desired level of parental investment. Specifically, highly jealous men, but not women, responded to the threat of infidelity by reporting diminished desire to invest in a future child. This sex-differentiated effect was predicted based on the evolutionary logic of parental investment theory (Trivers, 1972) and lends further support for jealousy being sex-differentiated in ways that are specific to the adaptive problems that have reliably confronted men and women over evolutionary time (see e.g., Buss et al., 1992).  Taken together, these results suggest that jealousy may function to help men and women successfully confront adaptive challenges associated with child-bearing and rearing recurrently faced throughout our evolutionary history. Even the most painful of emotions may guide our behavior in meaningful and functional ways.

Author Information

HillSarah E. Hill

An evolutionary psychologist, Dr. Hill’s research interests include health, body weight regulation, and consumer behavior. She also continues to do research on interpersonal relationships, exploring topics related to mating and rivalry, particularly among women.

DelPrioreDanielle J. DelPriore

A graduate student in the Department of Psychology at TCU, DelPriore conducts social psychological research utilizing an evolutionary framework to predict, explain, and understand social phenomena. Her current research spans a wide range of topics, including the effects of jealousy on men’s and women’s attitudes, intrasexual competition among women, attitudinal implications of skewed sex ratios, and functional shifts related to life history theory. Her primary line of research explores the effects of paternal disengagement on women’s attitudes and perceptions, and she is especially interested in the ways that social contexts influence decision-making with implications for health and social well-being.


Buss, D. M., Larsen, R., Westen, D., & Semmelroth, J. (1992). Sex differences in jealousy: Evolution, physiology, and psychology.  Psychological Science, 3, 251-255.

Hill S. E., & DelPriore, D. J. (2013). (Not) Bringing up baby: The effects of jealousy on the desire to have and invest in children. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 206-218.

Trivers, R. (1972).  Parental investment and sexual selection.  In B. Campbell (Ed.), Sexual selection and the descent of man, 1871-1971 (pp. 136-179).  Chicago:  Aldine.

Tiedens, L. Z., & Fragale, A. R. (2003). Power moves: Complementarity in dominant and submissive nonverbal behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 558-568.

Image Credit:  “Family” courtesy of “africa”  (ID: 10029227) /

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