An evolutionary perspective of online behaviour with Dr Evita March (Part 2: Cyber dating abuse)

An evolutionary perspective of online behaviour with Dr Evita March (Part 2: Cyber dating abuse)

This episode and the last one focus on Dr Evita March’s research in the area of cyber psychology. In this second part of our discussion, we consider how the dark tetrad of personality can help us understand cyber dating abuse. Along the way, we consider the role of attachment style and jealousy in intimate partner violence and coercive control online.

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (00:08):
Hello, and welcome to this episode of psych attack. I'm Dr. Jasmine B MacDonald. In this second episode with Dr. Evita March, we discuss evolutionary explanations of cyber dating abuse. I hope you're going well and have settled in with a warm cup of tea. This episode is part two of my discussion with Dr. Evita March about her research in the area of cyber psychology. Before listening to this episode, you might find it useful to listen to part one where we spoke about using mate selection as an example of evolutionary psychology. We also covered how the Dark Tetrad out of personality can help explain antisocial online behaviours like trolling. I hope things are going well, and that you enjoy the episode.

Dr. Evita March (00:54):
My initial, uh, when I first started really considering intimate relationships online was the initiation period, particularly online dating; what a mess that is. I mean, , it's, it has just had the most fascinating trajectory over when online dating started and it was considered for the desperate people. You didn't need to, if you had to online date, that was quite sad to now being a very common way of meeting people. I've met my current partner online, but honestly, I, I don't even know if we broke up tomorrow. If I would even go back to online dating after my research combined with just anecdotal reports from friends because it's just really complex. But anyways, how I became interested in cyber dating abuse, cyber dating abuse is a broader term that's applied to that antisocial or abusive behaviours online in an intimate relationship. So this can be in a range of different stages of the relationship.

Dr. Evita March (01:53):
We could talk about initiation stages of a relationship. So perhaps sending unsolicited explicit images could approximate cyber dating abuse. It could be in maintenance of relationships. So people who use forms of coercive control and aggression online, publicly shaming your partner on their social media feed, or it could even be in determination stages of a relationship where people could start stalking and invading their partner's privacy online to try and either keep their relationship going, or as a form of revenge or revenge porn. Also a form of cyber dating abuse. So it's a big capsule, right? Like as a behaviour, it can encompass a lot of different forms of intimate partner abuse online. Anything that we could basically say that would be a form of an abusive intent to harm behaviour online in an intimate relationship, could approximate cyber dating abuse. I've explored this in a variety of different behaviours. So a colleague and I looked at explicit image orientation, which was just a very academic way of saying "Dick pics" . Um, so, um, we're just interested in applying that personality profile, those dark traits to who is sending the explicit images, are they solicited? Are they unsolicited? And we did actually find something really interesting that men who had high levels of mate value, who felt that they were as a mate, pretty good. And who also higher on machiavellianism were more likely to be sending unsolicited explicit images. So we conclude ...

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (03:27):
It would be quite selfish for them to keep images to themselves. if they asked so impressive as a mate, right?

Dr. Evita March (03:34):
Well, that's a, yeah, you gotta wonder, like they must think it's somewhat, they, they must think what they've got going. It's pretty good. And they've gotta share it. so we actually theorized that if you think about it, Dick pics are the most aggressive, short term mating strategy you could find, on some level you are not even initiating a conversation. You are literally just sending a picture. . I mean, it's a conversation in away, but you are sending a picture of your genitals and there's no other, there's no other, unless yes. I think in some level there are people who do it for that shock value. It could be quite a deviant exhibitionist behaviour. Absolutely.

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (04:16):

Dr. Evita March (04:16):
Kind of is the same of, um, exhibitionist offline flashes, I suppose. It's the online equivalent,

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (04:22):

Dr. Evita March (04:23):
So we were interested in testing that, why did they do it? What's the motivation behind this?

Dr. Evita March (04:27):
And we did find that those who had higher levels of mate value who were higher on machiavellianism, which is that manipulative strategic trait, they were more likely to send those unsolicited explicit images. And so we concluded that it was essentially just an aggressive mating strategy. They were higher on that value. So they felt that what they had was pretty good and they were being strategic. It wasn't actually just an impulsive, dysfunctional, oh, I gotta send that. There was strategy behind sending that image. I think it's awesome that we put humor to this, that humor adds to what it is ultimately, which is a confronting behaviour that can have real traumatic damage to people who receive this particularly unsolicited. It can be incredibly traumatic.

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (05:13):

Dr. Evita March (05:14):
We were interested in just starting, I guess, starting to understand these forms because it is a form of abuse, unless you have been asked for that, that just though opens up a range of different questions, which is why I love this area of research, but it can just be so complex because, well, what about if you're in a relationship?

Dr. Evita March (05:32):
Is it unsolicited? Like if I did just send my partner an explicit image right now via text, is that unsolicited, do they need to ask? And yes, there's a range of different things that touches on enthusiastic consent. And I think that we probably don't have enough time to go down that path, but this is how we started to use an evolutionary perspective to try and understand some of this behaviour, particularly like that kind of deviant sexual behaviour, those unsolicited pictures, whether they're dick pics or not like why would somebody do that? Number of times people have wondered what the intention was behind it. Well, we can say, well, for some, it could just be an aggressive maintenance strategy. They are literally putting it out there. And it's just, are you down?

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (06:17):
In a populated market where there's lots of other people, a way to be aggressive and get attention.

Dr. Evita March (06:23):
Yep, exactly. And to communicate what you want immediately, you can't misinterpret that

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (06:30):

Dr. Evita March (06:31):
I mean, that is just one area, those abusive behaviours I've been interested across the trajectory of relationships and intimate relationships. So just from dating, how people behave on Tinder to then how they behave in the relationship, how people do air their relationship indiscretions, on Facebook and social media, how they have fights online, how they abuse each other online, and a particular interest of mine is how they cyber stalk one another online and how they invade their partner's privacy, but how they also employ forms of control online.

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (07:09):
What are some of those problematic traits that you found are associated with this cyber dating abuse or even stalking?

Dr. Evita March (07:17):
I've largely researched this using or employing those dimensions of personality around the dark Terad? So narcissism, psychopathy, machiavellianism and sadism, I've delved a bit deeper here and also in the other trolling research, but in particularly in cyber dating abuse into a more dimensional approach of these traits, one problem that we do find that's quite common than the literature is we do tend to conceptualise these traits as unidimensional and all of them actually do have different dimensions. So to explore cyber dating abuse, I have approached it as both a unidimensional exploration as just their total form, but I've also looked at their different dimensions and particularly for narcissism and psychopathy. So looking at the grandiose and vulnerable forms of narcissism, which, uh, briefly grandiose narcissism refers to that ego grandiosity exhibitionism, whereas vulnerable narcissism is better typified by, uh, emotional reactivity, a fragile, um, contingent self-worth or contingent on the approval of others and perhaps more aggression.

Dr. Evita March (08:33):
Mm. And in the dimensions of psychopathy, I've looked at primary and secondary primary psychopathy being characterised by more, um, manipulation in interpersonal relationships, callousness affective problems, secondary psychopathy, which is characterised by impulsivity, anti sociality, and also that emotional reactivity. So now that I've given that overall idea, how do they fit in with cyber dating abuse; in a study that a colleague and I published this year, actually, a colleague is now a current PhD student of mine, Molly Branson. She led the exploration of these dimensions of narcissism and psychopathy exploring cyber dating abuse, and found that it was vulnerable narcissism and secondary psychopathy that explained the significant amount of variance in cyber dating abuse, which led us to conclude that it is more those emotional reactive forms of these personality traits that predicts this type of abusive online behaviour in relationships.

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (09:38):
Mm-hmm, ,

Dr. Evita March (09:39):
I've also explored those different forms in specifically intimate partners, cyber stalking.

Dr. Evita March (09:44):
And I again, found that vulnerable narcissism and secondary psychopathy emerged as a significant predictors. So it does appear that those more vulnerable forms of this dark terad of personality does tend to predict intimate partner abuse, whether it is direct aggression, such as directly abusing them online, or it is more covert aggression, or covert abuse, such as coercive control online or cyber stalking, tracking their behaviours that included a range of different behaviours from, I like to, I will look at my partner's social media to find out what they're doing all the way to I've installed GPS tracking devices on my partner's phone to keep track of their whereabouts.

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (10:34):

Dr. Evita March (10:35):
The really disturbing thing is that's actually not as uncommon as you would think. And that's why it is such a really complex area. It's not crazy common. I'm not saying that it's more common, but looking at the percentages, I think at least 5% to 10% of the sample had agreed that they had installed tracking devices on their partner's device at some point so higher than I would've anticipated.

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (10:59):
Yeah. I mean, it's interesting to think about the extent to which it is covert or overt and the reaction of, of the partner and how that changes behaviour.

Dr. Evita March (11:10):

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (11:10):
Do we know much about that?

Dr. Evita March (11:12):
That is something I'd really like to explore because I am super curious about where the difference or where the line is drawn in the sand between curiosity and cyber stalking.

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (11:25):

Dr. Evita March (11:25):
The individual differences in that for some people, like they may be totally fine with their partner looking at their phone and going through messages and other people would consider it a real invasion of privacy. I don't think there's a right or wrong answer to that. It really is subjective and you know, the parameters of your own relationship, but then other people may consider that invasive behaviour. Am I able to judge if my friend is hypothetical here, but if my friend is totally fine with their partner logging into their email multiple times a day and logging into their social media, and I think it is an abusive, invasive relationship behaviour, like it is quite subjective. Right? And I think that is where we have difficulties in defining what abuse is online.

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (12:11):
One of the, the key findings you've talked about is this vulnerable narcissism. So don't like this suggests it's a reaction, right? A reaction to feeling threatened mm-hmm to their status as a potential mate in the, you know, like the best mate for this person, the relationship, and I guess themselves relative to their partner.

Dr. Evita March (12:30):
Yeah. Well, this is where we can use those different theoretical frameworks to help make sense of what's happening here. Now, just from a personality perspective, that vulnerable narcissism being pretty reliably significant of these behaviours would tend to indicate that people engaging in cyber abuse behaviours are more reactive, that they may be more sensitive to threats or relational threats and so they react either in an aggressive manner or also potentially that they could just be more insecure in the relationship. And so any potential threat, whether it's real imagined what not, a potential threat might lead them to engage in those types of particularly stalking behaviours, because it's quite reassuring and nullifies their fears. Their partner's not doing anything, but this then gets into more of the cycle of anxiety. Right? If I perceive a threat, that threat makes me anxious and I engage in a behaviour, which can then soothe me and I get that satisfaction, they're not doing anything. Everything is fine. I'm more likely to keep doing that.

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (13:36):
Like washing hands for OCD.

Dr. Evita March (13:38):
Yeah. Same kind of principle addiction.

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (13:41):

Dr. Evita March (13:42):
It feels good. It has eased some anxiety. And so we are more likely to keep behaving that way.

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (13:49):
The first thing I kind of think of in, in talking about that profile of the, um, cyber dating abusive person is attachment theory is that, you know, that vulnerability and emotional reactiveness. And when you think about it from that perspective, and then as you say, we can't assume that the partner that they're with finds the behaviour problematic, but that potential for a relationship dynamic where both maybe have had insecure attachment one, leading them to do these abusive behaviours and the other leading them to tolerate and to stay in a relationship that is stressful or controlling or manipulative.

Dr. Evita March (14:29):
So clearly you, and I think very similar about this, um, because that is exactly the theory that we have a research student of mine this year has been testing. She has been looking at.

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (14:40):

Dr. Evita March (14:40):
Yeah, there you go. See, um, she has been looking at insecure attachment styles, so avoid an attachment, anxious, attachment and jealousy, predicting cyber data and abuse. Ah, this is what she found. Jealousy is a significant predictor, which it just is. I have to say broadly jealousy consistently emerges. If you are more inclined to experiencing jealousy, it's more likely that you'll be engaging in cyber dating abuse and we can harp back, oh

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (15:10):
Dude, it doesn't get much more evolutionary.

Dr. Evita March (15:12):
Exactly. Right. That's it. That's it. And that's exactly right. We can harp back as I was gonna say it, that evolutionary framework we can harp back and say, okay, here is a framework to explain this. If you are more likely to be hypersensitive, to perceive real imagined threats, and that increase in jealousy in a measure to retain a mate or frighten them off because in some cases, but as a mate retention behaviour, you could engage in cyber data and abuse. Mm. What was surprising was she found that anxious attachment was not significant. My, um, suspicion for that is because it could be that jealousy is the component of anxious attachment that predicts this.

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (16:00):

Dr. Evita March (16:01):
And if you have already accounted for jealousy by exploring jealousy, explicitly than whatever variance in anxious attachment that explained cyber dating and abuse has now been captured. However, she found that avoidant attachment was a significant positive predictor. The more avoidant you are, the more likely you are to engage in cyber dating abuse. So what do you think of that?

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (16:30):
Interesting. I mean, if it's covert, that, that seems like it makes sense, right?

Dr. Evita March (16:37):

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (16:37):
I don't know. That's fascinating.

Dr. Evita March (16:39):
No, and you're exactly right. And look, that is one thing we didn't actually, we didn't differentiate in the scale, the overt covert forms of abuse. We just looked at it as a total shock,

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (16:49):
This complex area.

Dr. Evita March (16:50):
I know this is what I'm saying. this is what I keep saying. Oh, I know it is, but it's great.

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (16:57):
Sample size of like 20,000 to control for all the things you want control for

Dr. Evita March (17:01):
Exactly. Right.

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (17:02):
It's gonna take five hours to do the survey.

Dr. Evita March (17:06):
I, I recently, um, was working with a colleague. It was new in this whole area. Um, not just cyber dating bit, but I guess online behaviour. And she was like, this is doing my head in, this is so theoretical. I'm not used to this, like yeah. It's um, and it's not like, that's the other thing it has been. So atheoretical that we are testing now, these new theories and also finding some pretty bizarre directions are going, wait, what happened there? Avoidant is positive. What, but I think you're exactly right. And that's what I was thinking too, in that if it is covert, it makes sense. You are avoidant of perhaps, uh, confronting them or talking about this. It's easier to just jump online and check out their bank accounts and see where they were and what they were spending. It's easier to just look at their recent contacts on social media or their messages rather than directly confronting the situation, because maybe that's too, um, too emotionally charged.

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (18:04):
Yeah. And even if it's not completely hidden, there's ways that you could leave a trail that suggests I'm checking. Mm don't. Do anything you're not supposed to do. Yeah. So there's quite a continuum there.

Dr. Evita March (18:15):
That's a really interesting idea because would the vulnerable narcissism and secondary psychopathy be that strategic to leave the breadcrumbs? And I, that's a really interesting idea because I hadn't considered so far that you are right. They could leave indicators in that I've been here and I'm watching, so don't do anything because I'll find out mm-hmm ,

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (18:44):
but I'm not confronting you about it. Hey, I'm a caring partner, but I'll know if you do anything you're not supposed

Dr. Evita March (18:50):
To. Yeah. Yeah. Right.

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (18:52):

Dr. Evita March (18:52):
Yeah. So yeah, I, I, for the more vulnerable volatile forms, I don't know, because they like that secondary psychopathy is typified by impulsivity, right? Like, are they able to be strategic to play that long? It's a long game, right? You are playing a long term game by doing that. You've got to be planning strategic. I don't know that to me suggests perhaps it's more of that primary manipulative forms are able to play that long game. Like maybe more machiavellianism be playing in there.

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (19:28):
One of the things I wanted to ask you was, if this research had changed your online behaviours or attitudes, and you've already hinted at that by talking about online dating, but is there anything else that stands out? So for, for me, for example, my research is occupational stress and trauma. And I focus particularly on TV news and journalists. And when I'm really deep diving in a project and maybe interviewing people about the news or whether it's domestic or international conflict, I avoid all media. like, I don't wanna talk about it with people and the way the stress it causes for them. And then also go home and watch it. So I, I wonder like the it's really impossible for you to avoid online interaction, but how do you think your behaviours have changed since doing this research?

Dr. Evita March (20:16):
It's been difficult at times how it's changed. My behaviour is I just don't use social media enough. I must be like for a social media researcher, my social media presence is ridiculously low , um, I'm just useless at it. I'm useless at it. I don't, I'm in my Twitter handle. I only reinstated this year because I like went on Twitter at one point and searched my name and found I was getting tagged and some news things and thought, oh, I better actually create a profile. So I get tagged in it, things that I have done though, I, I do operate under more pseudonyms. I'm less comfortable being, uh, having a public name online because I have experienced, uh, some cyber abuse myself. And it's been a bit creepy at times. Uh, attention to privacy online has increased. Yeah, I guess just my overall levels of cyber safety, necessarily security, not security and passwords, et cetera, but safety, my, my psychological safety online and how I can protect myself. And one way I do that is I fill my news feeds with dogs.

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (21:25):
Yes. I love that. There's a, a Reddit feed called awwww

Dr. Evita March (21:32):
And it's,

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (21:32):
It's a dreamboat of cats and dogs and, um, or all the amazing videos. Yeah. That's probably a good approach for trying to think about, you know, where do we find the good news story or where do we find the content that make, that actually feeds your soul? And it's not just updates of what your friends are doing or what they're eating or negative content from.

Dr. Evita March (21:54):

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (21:55):
You know, whatever sources. So in kind of drawing our super interesting conversation towards a, which I find quite disappointing.

Dr. Evita March (22:04):
I did not envy you at all, editing this.

Dr. Evita March (22:06):
So go on . Oh gosh.

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (22:10):
I'm wondering if there's any outputs or, you know, projects or anything you wanted to mention for listeners.

Dr. Evita March (22:18):
Firstly, I'm interested in continuing the trolling research, but taking a bit of an, uh, a bit of a different approach. I, instead of like the dark terad that I have been exploring, I'm interested in looking at, uh, social dominance orientation, right wing authoritarianism, and also a really neat new scale that has come out the need for chaos scale. I'm really interested in continuing research and trolling, but from different, uh, different perspectives and one around that need for chaos and yeah, why that need for chaos might be. The other area I am interested in continuing is continuing to explore intimate partners cyberstalking and intimate partners, cyber dating abuse with that specific focus on cyberstalking because I do have an interest in coercive control; so how people use online, how they use online platforms to control their partner, whether their partner is aware of it or not.

Dr. Evita March (23:21):
Um, for example, we were just, uh, we have an article right now that we have under consideration for publication in a journal. And in that we explore different ways that people get information about their partner online. And in some of those items, they were quite controlling behaviours. Like I delete or block people. I don't want my partner speaking to, or I prevent them from contacting a certain person and at face value, it sounds very controlling and it is very controlling, but at face value, it sounds very, uh, overtly controlling. Like you will not talk to that person. I'm gonna delete that person. You can't talk to them anymore, but actually could be completely covert. I could just be blocking my partner's contacts without them knowing I could actually be putting them on a block list and they don't know. So it's, uh, it could all be very covert.

Dr. Evita March (24:11):
So I'm quite interested in continuing to explore forms of coercive control online. And I think that that will be only increase in importance, particularly as the new national plan for preventing violence against women and children is coming out. The last area I'm really interested in exploring now is the experience of scientists and researchers of cyber abuse online. And there was a report just released by nature and ABC wrote an article on it of how many scientists, particularly immunologists, and those who are supporting COVID 19 vaccinations. How many have experienced cyber abuse, the astonishing number that have, have received death threats online. So I'm really interested in performing perhaps a qualitative exploration on what type of cyber abuse that scientists experience. I think that we also have known for quite some time that climate change scientists experience a whopping large amount of cyber abuse, but we just haven't really considered how impactful it could be.

Dr. Evita March (25:23):
And I think that now we know that experience in online abuse can be, have significant psychosocial impact. It hasn't occurred to me until now that scientists and researchers are a vulnerable group online, but there's some evidence to suggest that they are, what are the responsibilities of institutions to protect scientists and researchers online? Should we just expect to experience online abuse because we are online and the research could be polarising. So that's just a few ideas. There's a lot more, um, brewing in the research cauldron, but that's just a few areas I'd be, um, yeah, a few directions. I think I'd like to take over the next year or two.

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (26:10):
Yeah. I think each of them is really fascinating and it's probably the, the latency effect that makes me focus on . Um, the, the abuse towards researchers, but I've found since COVID and having research students, especially at honours level, I think there's this really interesting, you know, talking about, uh, staff or faculty that might be abused and how that might be different to an honest candidate who just has to recruit online. So a student and I collected data on COVID related racial discrimination for Asian Australians, but while he was recruiting, he, he was abused and people were commenting and saying racism isn't a thing in Australia, go home and called him all these really awful names because his, his name is of Malaysian background.

Dr. Evita March (26:59):
Right. Oh goodness.

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (26:59):
So it really got me thinking about, you know, as you're saying, what's the responsibility to protect scientists and then for those scientists to protect the students that they work with as well. Um, it's an interesting area.

Dr. Evita March (27:14):
I think that it is something that we will have more conversations about following this report from nature. And it will prompt some discussions on the duty of care that institutions, but also as lead investigators of projects, we have to the research team and safety. There was only this year that a research team I have where we were exploring incels. That could be a whole other topic, but we were exploring incels and they were recruiting from incel forums and we operated under anonymous names. So we didn't attach our name to the project. We just note that we are a team of researchers from Federation University Australia, and simply because that anonymity provided a level of protection,

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (27:58):
Uh, I take your point in, this is gonna be something that's gonna be of more importance, some focus going forward. And I very much look forward to reading your work in each of those three areas going forward.

Dr. Evita March (28:10):

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (28:11):
Okay. So what's a good way for listeners to keep up to date with what you're working on or to reach out if they have questions.

Dr. Evita March (28:19):
Well, as I said, I'm the social media researcher, that's rubbish at social media. So that's Ugh, embarrassing. Look, I think the best way to keep up to date with me is I'm great at email. So that is one thing that I am very responsive. I can take at least some pride in that, and I am using Twitter more these days, or I'm trying to, and I'm having a good crack at it. So you can follow me on Twitter. It's super easy just @EvitaMarch. I do really enjoy it when people do reach out to chat about research or even research ideas that they have. Um, I really enjoy having those conversations.

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (28:59):
This has been a real pleasure for me, Evita, I've really enjoyed the back and forth and hacking on these ideas with you and just hearing about the fascinating work that you and your team have been doing. So yeah, really genuinely thank you for coming along and having a chat.

Dr. Evita March (29:13):
Thank you for having me. It's really great to just sit back and chat to somebody about these big ideas that we don't often get to verbalize and really hash out and have these conversations. I think it's, yeah, it's been a real pleasure for me too, Jasmine. Thanks for having me

Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald (29:33):
For those of you at home. That's all for today. Show notes for the episode can be found at If you've enjoyed listening to PsychAttack, please rate it on your favorite podcast platform and share this episode to help other people find the show. If you have questions or feedback, you can reach out on Twitter at pPsychAttack cast. Thanks for listening. And we'll catch up with you again, next time.

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