The Earthling

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?

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?

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.

During human evolution, sheerly sexual infidelity was a particularly deep Darwinian threat to men because it could mean they wound up rearing children who weren’t carrying their genes. So genes counseling fierce male sexual jealousy would do a better job of getting themselves into the next generation than alternative genes that countenanced indifference to a mate’s infidelity. For our female ancestors, of course, a mate’s sexual infidelity wouldn’t have carried the same threat, since any children they gave birth to assuredly carried their genes. For them, the bigger threat would have been a mate’s falling in love with another woman (especially if they had borne a child by that man, a child he might now partly or entirely withdraw support from).

For purposes of penetrating the mystery of Temptation Island, it’s important to be clear on why being cuckolded exacts such a high Darwinian price for a man: not just because his mate will have a child that lacks his genes, but because (thanks to a human trait called “male parental investment“) he will then stick around after the birth and invest time and energy in that child, to the exclusion of other activities that might have gotten his genes into the next generation. So you might expect the intensity of a man’s jealousy to depend on the chances of his sticking around with a particular woman in the first place. Indeed, as the evolutionary psychologist David Buss has shown, when men have opportunistic sex in mind—when they’re hoping to have sex without any enduring emotional or material commitment—they are often not terribly bothered by a woman’s promiscuity. (In fact, they may in a sense find it attractive—as a sign that she’s accessible.)

All of this is just to provide a theoretical underpinning for a fairly commonsense observation: All other things being equal, the more in love a man is (translation: the more likely he is to stick around and help rear any offspring), the more jealous he’ll be. I think Temptation Island—a jealous man’s nightmare—tends to attract men who aren’t deeply in love with their mates.

Certainly, from early in the series, most couples showed signs of an imbalance of power rooted in an imbalance in commitment. The imbalance was glaring in the cases of Kaya-Valerie and Ytossie-Taheed and more subtly evident in the case of Shannon-Andy. (The superficially baffling case of Billy-Mandy, remember, we’re saving for next week.)

Of course, balances of power can shift. Andy, having struck out with the temptress he fell for, is now feeling needy, while Shannon, having happened upon Ivy League dreamboat Tom, is thinking about trading up to a better model. For that matter, the relationship of Taheed and Ytossie—who were discovered in midtaping to have a young child—has changed, too. Whether because he doesn’t want to look like a jerk on national TV or for more heartwarming reasons, Taheed has now shocked Ytossie by professing lifelong devotion to her.

But the fact remains that Andy and Taheed weren’t singing these tunes going into the series. Rather, they—and for that matter Kaya—seem to have arrived on Temptation Island with the mindset you’d expect of men who agree to go there: not terribly committed to their women and perhaps even actively (if unconsciously) looking for a way to ditch them.

In sum: A man’s eagerness to go to Temptation Island is (according to my armchair theorizing) inversely proportional to his devotion to his mate, hence inversely proportional to his jealousy of said mate.

In a different way, this inverse correlation probably holds for women, too. After all, there’s some chance that a woman’s mate will find one of the island temptresses to be not just a sex toy but an object of affection. Besides, women feel sheerly sexual jealousy, even if not as intensely, on average, as men. So any woman very enamored of her man shouldn’t be eager to head for the island.

Still, to the extent that Temptation Island is seen as a place of sexual temptation—which was the standard view of it going into the show, whatever the reality—then a man’s eagerness to go there is even more of an index of alienation from a mate than is a woman’s eagerness.

All told, then, the Fox Network’s initial claim that it had drawn four couples in “committed relationships” to Temptation Island was false almost by definition. If either mate were deeply committed, it would take some persuading to get him or her to the island, and if both mates were deeply committed, there would be no one to do the persuading. (My guess, for the record, is that Kaya persuaded Valerie, Andy persuaded Shannon, and Taheed persuaded Ytossie.)

The moral of the story is one that, admittedly, you probably didn’t need evolutionary psychology to fathom: If your significant other suggests that you go to Temptation Island, start looking for another significant other—one that will guard you more jealously.

Another challenge to evolutionary psychology successfully squashed! But that was a breeze compared to next week’s challenge: Billy and Mandy, the couple from another planet.