Heightened jealousy, vulnerable narcissism, and secondary psychopathy are predictors of cyber dating abuse, according to new research published in Computers in Human Behavior. The study provides new insight into the psychological profile of people who use technology to control, coerce, intimidate, humiliate, or threaten their romantic partners.
“The world of online behavior is ever evolving, online communication is no longer considered a ‘novelty.’ Increasingly, the digital sphere is being used as yet another ‘realm’ upon which relationships can develop or become toxic,” said study author Molly Branson, a PhD candidate at the Federation University Australia.
“Cyber dating abuse reflects this toxicity. Just as it occurs in offline contexts, this form of intimate partner violence has permeated the world of online romantic relationships. Despite the increasing prevalence associated with the experience of cyber dating abuse, relatively little research has actually tried to profile the abuser. We sought, in our study, to examine which personality variables may increase or decrease the likelihood of one perpetrating abuse against an intimate partner in an online context.”
In the study, 817 participants completed an online questionnaire that assessed jealousy, hostility, narcissism, psychopathy, and perpetration of cyber dating abuse. The sample ranged in age from 18 to 73 years old, and the average age of the participants was 28.
Cyber dating abuse includes behaviors such as threatening to spread embarrassing information online, pretending to be another person on the internet to test a partner, sharing sexual content without permission, controlling a partner’s status updates on social networks, and writing a comment on a social network to insult or humiliate a partner.
The researchers found that those with higher levels of jealousy, vulnerable narcissism, or secondary psychopathy were more likely to report engaging in cyber dating abuse. Vulnerable narcissism is characterized by excessive self-absorption and insecurity, while secondary psychopathy is characterized by impulsivity and carelessness.
However, grandiose narcissism and primary psychopathy were not found to predict engaging in cyber dating abuse. Grandiose narcissism, in contrast to its vulnerable counterpart, is characterized by an exaggerated sense of superiority, extroversion, and domineering behavior. Primary psychopathy is characterized by callousness and fearless dominance.
Hostility was also positively associated with cyber dating abuse, but its effect became non-significant after accounting for vulnerable narcissism and secondary psychopathy.
“The findings painted an interesting picture of the perpetrators of this behavior. It would appear that those who abuse their romantic partners online are likely to be more emotionally reactive, impulsive, and insecure, and tend to enact abusive behaviors in response to jealousy-inducing stimuli, possibly as a misguided attempt at mate retention,” Branson told PsyPost.
“These findings are particularly interesting, as this profile appears to contrast that of the offline abuser. Although offline abusers can also be impulsively jealous and reactive, they can also be proactive, instrumental, and outwardly hostile. The differences in these profiles suggest that the immediacy and accessibility afforded by online communication tends to attract a more quick-to-anger, impulsive, and insecure perpetrator when compared to offline intimate partner aggression.”
But as with any study, the research includes a few limitations.
“Although our study did contribute to the wider field of cyber dating abuse research, there are certainly some caveats that must be considered. First, although representative of the wider literature, the actual number of perpetrators within our sample was relatively low, so we may have fallen victim to some floor effects. Our sample was also heavily skewed towards females, which may undermine some of the generalizability of our results,” Branson explained.
“There are still a number of questions to be addressed by researchers in the future,” she added. “The wider cyber dating abuse literature is rife with definitional ambiguity — a recent review found 18 differing definitions and terms for the behavior, making prevalence estimation and comparison between studies incredibly difficult.”
“Similarly, we express some concern regarding the measurement of the behavior — because human beings’ technological usage continues to evolve, we need to ensure that the science is staying abreast of new developments in the world of online communication and relationships, in order to ensure that we are truly capturing the behavior as it occurs ‘in the wild,’ so to speak.”
Previous research on adolescents has found that “traditional” offline dating abuse and cyber dating abuse are positively related both concurrently and over time.
“Cyber dating abuse is not likely to dissipate any time soon,” Branson said. “Because we are increasingly playing out our relationships online as well as offline, we need to gain a greater understanding of why and how things can turn toxic, and, in turn, lead to online abuse. By elucidating the characteristics that can contribute to the perpetration of cyber dating abuse, we are able to better recognize and, indeed, prevent the behavior from occurring.”
The study, “Dangerous dating in the digital age: Jealousy, hostility, narcissism, and psychopathy as predictors of Cyber Dating Abuse“, was authored by Molly Branson and Evita March.