“Mother Nature is a wicked old witch,” it has been said. We like to believe that Lisa Nowak and all the rest of those who succumb to romantic jealousy are fragile victims of a bad childhood or are weak, narcissistic or deranged.
But Mother Nature plays a role in jealousy. In an article in the Los Angeles Times on February 14th, David Buss, a leading evolutionary psychologist, wrote that some 93% of American men and 82% of American women were the focus of an attempted seduction while they were in a relationship. Moreover, 53% of men and 41% of women had lost their partner to a romantic rival: mate poaching.
No wonder, as an Australian Aborigine wisely said, “We are a jealous people.” We can turn murderous, too. In a study of 5,000 people in six cultures, 84% of women and 91% of men admitted to having had at least one fantasy about murdering a sweetheart or a romantic rival. Many of us contain this “green eyed monster,” as Shakespeare called jealousy. But many don’t. Buss reports that sexual jealousy is “the leading cause of spousal murder worldwide.”
Which leads to the point of this blog: How do we help (and punish) Lisa Nowak, a woman who drove some 950 miles in diapers carting a mallet, knife, rubber hose and garbage bags--all carefully purchased to terrorize, if not maim, a romantic rival?
On Valentine’s Day evening a major American news channel invited a psychologist to help us understand Lisa. With utter confidence, this woman blamed all the usual suspects: Lisa’s possible “attachment” problems as a child and the stress of her current marital situation.
I don’t believe her. As we learn more about the brain, it is becoming evident why so many people around the world lose control when jealous. Jealousy triggers activity in the amygdala and hypothalamus, brain regions that can initiate violent aggression. Not just in humans. When dominant male rhesus monkeys watch a “consort” copulate with a rival, these males also show more activity in the amygdala. Many become aggressive too.
When will American psychologists stop blaming all of our misdeeds on poor parenting? I suspect: never. Because they feel they can “fix” the patterns we built as children. And they don’t know how to “fix” our biology.
I don’t either. But ignoring biology is not the solution. As we learn more and more about the brain, we will have to cope with all these data. In fact, I suspect this may become a prominent 21st century issue: How to help and punish all those unfortunate human beings who lost their fight against this (sometimes) wicked old witch: Mother Nature.