Catching a partner checking out a hot guy or gal can do a number on even the most confident person. New research suggests the resulting jealousy can actually distract a person so much they miss what's right in front of their eyes.
In the study, heterosexual romantic couples sat near each other at individual computers separated by a curtain. The women had to pick out certain landscape and architectural photos that were rotated 90-degrees within images of streams that flashed onto the screen. During the photo session, the participants also had to ignore occasional emotionally unpleasant images that were gruesome or graphic in some way.
Meanwhile, the guys were asked to rate the attractiveness of landscapes that appeared on their screens. Simple enough… Then, partway through the experiment, the experimenter announced the male partner would rate the attractiveness of other single women.
At the end of the experiment, the gals indicated how uneasy they felt about their partner scoping out other women.
Jealous women were found to be more distracted. The more jealous they reported feeling, the more distracted they were by the emotional images and therefore they were less able to pick out the targets they were being tested on.
But this emotional distraction only blinded participants when their male partner was rating the attractiveness of single women and not when looking at landscapes.
"This helps to rule out baseline individual differences between the women and helps us attribute the effect specifically to the jealousy manipulation," said study researcher Steven Most of the Department of Psychology at the University of Delaware.
Here's what the researchers think is going on:
In general, the brain seems to be wired to prioritize particularly emotional information, Most explained. So when the gruesome images flashed onto the screen, it would be tough for anyone to ignore them.
"When an emotional stimulus appears, it draws attention to itself — and thus draws attention away from other things that come immediately afterwards," Most said. "When attention is preoccupied in such a way, we tend to miss thing that appear right in front of our eyes."
And for those with heightened anxiety, the emotional distracters can be even more distracting.
"What seems to be occurring is that the women were being distracted by images that were consistent with their negative emotional state," Most told LiveScience. "The jealousy manipulation likely raised their temporary level of anxiety, and it turns out that anxious people tend to be more prone to attend to negative emotional stimuli than non-anxious people."
The researchers aren't sure what would happen if the roles were reversed and women got to check out hot single men while their partners completed the picture task. Future research could reveal whether men are more or less blinded by jealousy than women, the researchers say.
Most and his colleagues detail their findings in the April issue of the journal Emotion, published by the American Psychological Association.