Temptation Island: Explaining Shannon and Andy

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Feb. 28 2001 11:30 PM

Temptation Island: Explaining Shannon and Andy

Last week in this space I raised the harrowing prospect that the TV show Temptation Island may defy basic laws of evolutionary psychology. For example: Aren't humans jealous by nature? So how could eight people agree to come to an island where their mates will be surrounded by attractive and aggressive members of the opposite sex?

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And what about Billy and Mandy? What with Mandy's eclectic attraction to opposite-sex flesh and Billy's tenderhearted devotion, doesn't this couple confound standard sex roles?

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

I'll address these two subjects in turn: jealousy this week and sex roles next week. But first let me deflate the drama slightly with a standard disclaimer: Evolutionary psychology does not claim that all people all the time conform to simple laws. (There are various reasons for this, but one big one is that today people don't live in a social environment anything like the hunter-gatherer environment that we were "designed" by natural selection to live in, a fact that complicates things even.) In that sense, evolutionary psychologists are just like other psychologists: They try to predict behavior only in an aggregate statistical sense, mindful that there will always be exceptions.

Still, there are two reasons to plunge ahead and explore any seeming exceptions found on Temptation Island: 1) When evolutionary psychologists wave the above disclaimer too casually and frequently, it starts seeming like a copout; 2) I need something to write about, and these days my realm of expertise is trashy TV shows.

Evolutionary psychology's main contribution to the understanding of jealousy is showing how, and why, it differs by sex. Of course, both men and women get plenty jealous. And both are susceptible to both basic kinds of jealousy: jealousy over sheerly sexual infidelity and jealousy over emotional infidelity—over a mate's falling in love with someone else. Still, as a rule, the thought of a mate's having extracurricular sex is especially abhorrent to men. Women, meanwhile, get more stressed out by the prospect of emotional betrayal.

Darwinians expect this difference on theoretical grounds—for reasons I'll get to below—but it has also been borne out by extensive studies. And for that matter by Shannon. As her boyfriend Andy noted in the latest episode of Temptation Island, Shannon's attitude going into the show was: She'd rather Andy have sex with a woman and send her on her way than chastely cuddle with her for a whole night. Thus we can add to Shannon's list of endearing attributes that she is a perfectly compliant data point.

Andy I'm less sure about. After characterizing Shannon's attitude, he says he kind of feels the same way. It's unclear, in context, whether he means that he feels the same way about her exploits or about his exploits—i.e., that it would be emotionally easier on him if he just had sex with temptresses rather than falling in love with one. In view of Andy's defining experience on Temptation Island—falling hard for temptress Megan and getting burned by her—it may well be the latter. But it could be the former—in which case he's violating Darwinian theory, and thus deserves the punishment that, as of this writing (the day before the final episode), he seems poised to receive: Shannon's dumping him in favor of tempter Tom, the "Ivy-League graduate."

This asymmetry in the jealousy felt by the two sexes makes it especially puzzling why males would take their mates to Temptation Island. After all, spending a few days on an island with scantily clad bachelors and bachelorettes who will then scatter far and wide would seem more likely to lead to casual sex than to a lasting commitment.

There's all kinds of armchair theorizing that might solve this puzzle. Maybe the men imagined that trysts would be tough to arrange with camera crews around. (And, indeed, at least up until the climactic dream dates, there seems to have been no "hooking up"; in general, Temptation Island turned out to be less salacious than anticipated.) Or maybe the men, possessing massive egos, assumed that their particular women were impervious to temptation (in which case two of them—Kaya and Taheed—seem to have been more or less right). Also, remember that, even as men generally fear a mate's one-night stands more than women do, men also themselves find one-night stands more enticing than women do. So, to the extent that a man envisions Temptation Island as a hotbed of sexual infidelity, its high costs might seem equaled by high benefits.  

But my favorite armchair theory is none of the above. It has to do with the underlying (hypothesized) explanation for the asymmetry in jealousy.

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