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Jealousy: Hard-Wired, Learned, or Both?

My parrot, Pearl, jealously eyeing my baby tortoise, Malti.
My parrot, Pearl, jealously eyeing my baby tortoise, Malti.

Last month I shared a post about how to stop judging other people.

The post generated some interesting comments.

One particular reader suggested that perhaps the sensation of “jealousy” might have a similar survival-based purpose.

I was most intrigued by her idea!

The truth is, I am personally more apt to look to animal behavior rather than human behavior to better understand why I think and say and feel and do the things I think/say/feel/do.

This is because when I watch animals there is less subtext to wade through.

The link between motive – action – desired outcome is clearer.

In the judging post, I used the analogy of a lady eagle choosing a mate and why judgment might be helpful to that process (especially since eagles mate for life).

In the same way, when I watch television shows about animals, I notice what appears to be a fair amount of what I might call “practical jealousy” – jealousy that could be useful for successfully navigating the various facets of a survival-based daily life.

In fact, I don’t even have to turn on the television to see this – in my own household, my 13-year old parrot, Pearl, is intensely jealous of my new baby tortoise, Malti.

Pearl doesn’t try to hide his jealousy. If anything, he amps up his efforts at self-expression (perhaps assuming his large featherless housemate is too dense to pick up on anything less than the most extreme outbursts).

You might be wondering, “How do I know that Pearl is ‘jealous’?” 

If we are talking about quantifiable scientific ‘proof,’ I don’t know for sure.

But I do know what I do when I’m jealous – I act out, I shriek (although typically using my ‘inside voice’), I shred/hide the other being’s things, I try to steal victuals, I cling to the being or object i think I am ‘losing’ to my competitor…..

I see all of these behaviors going on in Pearl.

Now let’s look at parrot psychology – why might an extremely pampered “single parrot” in his mid-life years find any real cause to become jealous of a new flock mate?

  • I raised Pearl from a chick, feeding him baby formula by hand until he was old enough to eat. This meant he quickly bonded with me as “Mom.”
  • Pearl also has a permanent wing injury that prevents him from ever flying, so I have to carry him everywhere he wants to go.
  • As well, he is missing three claws (so he has five instead of the full set of eight most parrots possess), so he is less able to get around and defend himself than most birds his size and age.

So – plenty of reasons for jealousy!

What if Mom decides she likes the other, newer, younger, (and very strange-looking) flock mate better? What if meals stop coming as frequently….or ever? What if she doesn’t have as much time to scratch itchy neck feathers, offer showers, and play?

In the same way, even in the behavior of animals I do not know or wild animals, there are many such behaviors that seem to mirror so-called “jealous” behaviors in humans.

  • One blue-footed booby chick pushes the second, younger, chick out of the nest – and to its death – to ensure it gets enough food.
  • Two bison lock horns and fight to injury and perhaps death for the right to mate.
  • One coral invades another’s space, and the aggrieved coral secretes what scientists now term “coral chemical warfare” to put down the uprising….for good.
  • Female warblers crush the eggs of rival females (a behavior PBS scientists term “jealousy”) to win a male’s attention.

But is “jealousy” hard-coded into our DNA? Or is it learned? Or both?

I could see how jealous behaviors – as in the expressive outcome of an inner jealous impulse – might be part learned, especially if baby beings watch their parents to learn the appropriate expressions of jealousy at mating time, while hunting or feeding, or when tending young.

So is jealousy – as well as judgment – part of our limbic brain’s “fight or flight” early warning system?

If you asked me, with the full caveat that I have zero quantifiable, scientific proof to back this up, I would say “yes.”

Now, do I believe there are levels of jealousy? Personally, I do.

For instance, my brain is evolved enough to help me distinguish between a true survival threat (I’m jealous because that other person has lunch to eat and I don’t) and what I call a “first world issue” (I’m jealous because that other person took the last chocolate chip cookie and I wanted it for myself).

In the former scenario, if that truly was the last lunch anywhere on the planet, I might be forgiven for acting on my jealousy and attempting to nab it for myself.

In the latter scenario, the appropriate response is to suck it up….no one is going hungry today (and the peanut butter cookie is a perfectly acceptable substitute).

Today’s Takeaway: What do you think? Is jealousy hard-wired into our DNA to help us survive? Is it learned? Is it neither – or perhaps a bit of both? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


Jealousy: Hard-Wired, Learned, or Both?

Shannon Cutts

Freelance writer. Author. Cockatiel, redfoot tortoise & box turtle mama.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2019). Jealousy: Hard-Wired, Learned, or Both?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 24, 2020, from


Last updated: 29 Mar 2019
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