by Dr. Virgil Zeigler-Hill
Interview with Dr. Peter K (PK) Jonason
Dr. Peter K. (PK) Jonason is a Senior Lecturer in Personality and Individual Differences at the University of Western Sydney. He is a social-personality psychologist who uses evolutionary theory to derive predictions and account for phenomena in personality, mating strategies, and sexual behavior. He is a prolific researcher who has already published 75 peer-reviewed journal articles.
Virgil: Can you tell me a bit about your background? How did you become interested in psychology?
PK: Funny story. When I took intro to psychology at UCONN, I hated it and only got a C. All I heard was “helping people” and “feelings”; my preconceptions of psychology colored my vision of that class and the field. It was not until I took a class in Nonverbal Communication, with Ross Buck–a social psychologist by training–that I started to see psychology differently. He suggested I read David Buss’ Evolution of Desire book and after that I was hooked. I thought the application of the theory of evolution to psychology made so much sense and it fit my burgeoning atheism.
Virgil: Your research has covered a lot of fascinating topics but much of your recent research has focused on the Dark Triad. Can you describe the Dark Triad for any readers who are not familiar with it?
PK: The Dark Triad traits are a collection of correlated-yet-distinct personality traits that reflect—in a gestalt—a selfish approach to life. Psychopathy is noted for its correlations with factors like limited self-control, dysfunctional impulsivity, and aggression in pretty much anyway you measure it. Machiavellianism is a tactical and pragmatic approach to the gaining of power and is characterized by the use of a wide range of manipulation tactics. Narcissism is the lightest of the three traits and instead of actively working against the group’s interests, they are simply out for themselves through self-enhancement and prestige-seeking.
Virgil: I am sure that a lot of readers can think of people they have known who have one (or more) of these traits! What led you to become interested in the Dark Triad?
PK: One sunny day in New Mexico I was on the phone with my informal mentor and friend, Norm Li. We were talking about how traits that appear bad—like narcissism—might actually be adaptive in the mating game so long as we focus on short-term mating outcomes. Upon inspecting the literature about this idea, I discovered that in 2002, another researcher had created this grouping called the Dark Triad. Once I presented the results from the study that came out of our conversation in Kyoto, Japan, the media frenzy told me I was onto something.
Virgil: Could you tell me about one of your favorite studies concerning the Dark Triad?
PK: My first response to this is that asking me to choose is like asking a parent to choose between their children, but I think I recently saw a study that despite their reluctance to say so, parents do have favorites. I will say this, one of my least favorite studies—on mate poaching and retention in relation to the Dark Triad—is actually one of my best cited ones. This gives me a laugh. But, if you are forcing me to pick, I would say
Jonason, P.K., Valentine, K.A., Li, N.P., & Harbeson, C.L. (2011). Mate-selection and the Dark Triad: Facilitating a short-term mating strategy and creating a volatile environment. Personality and Individual Differences, 51, 759-763.
This paper answers this really interesting question—how are men characterized by the Dark Triad traits able to get all the mates they reported in a prior study of mine? The figure in the study is one of my favorites because it really cuts these guys down to size. It suggests the reason these men are so successful is that they will have sex with (not necessarily date) pretty much anyone (i.e., they had really low standards in the short-term context). Now that I think of it, I think this paper was an Editor’s pick at the journal it was published in for a while, suggesting it is not just my favorite but others’ as well.
Virgil: That is a really interesting set of results! It certainly fits with some of the views that I have heard folks express about these sorts of guys over the years. What implications do aspects of the Dark Triad – such as narcissism – have for romantic relationships?
PK: Before the Dark Triad was even a thing, friends of mine like Keith Campbell and Josh Foster had already demonstrated that narcissism was bad news for relationships. Those characterized by these traits fail to try to keep their mates, have a desire for novelty, introduce volatility and risk into the relationship, and have a game-playing and pragmatic love style all of which are likely a function of their generalized agentic (as opposed to communal approach) to the world. However, these factors are likely only poisonous in the long-term—the traits acting more like a cancer than a virus. In the short-term, the Dark Triad traits, especially for men, may act as mechanisms to improve their short-term mating success. For instance, in as much as women are looking for “bad boys” for short-term partners, these traits are definitely useful in that context. They foster prestige, dominance, and an opportunistic and sometimes exploitive mating strategy that are helpful in attracting short-term partners. Indeed, the pick-up artist community has picked up on the Dark Triad traits just for this reason.
Virgil’s wife found a book on his desk about a year ago that was titled, ”The Mystery Method: How to Get Beautiful Women Into Bed.” She was less than pleased even though he claimed that he had recently bought the book for a project that one of his students was interested in pursuing.
Virgil: It is interesting that you mention the fact that pick-up artists are interested in the Dark Triad because one of my former graduate students is interested in examining the personality features of guys who identify themselves as pick-up artists. [Editor’s note: Virgil’s wife found a book on his desk about a year ago that was titled, ”The Mystery Method: How to Get Beautiful Women Into Bed.” She was less than pleased even though he claimed that he had recently bought the book for a project that one of his students was interested in pursuing. It seems like he is still sticking with his unlikely story more than a year later. He should definitely get credit for his persistence and commitment to this story…but she still doesn’t believe him.] You have published a number of studies concerning mating strategies and sexual behavior. What are some of the most interesting findings from your work in those areas?
PK: First, off I tried to get some data on just those aspects of pick-up artists. I created a measure that contained a number of measures. After I sent it to one group, I never heard from them again. But I digress, the truth be told, I was originally interested in mating as a research topic and my Ph.D. dissertation—unpublished—was on mate preferences. I think the most important contribution I have made in this area is to suggest that relationships are not natural kinds but instead are the result of implicit/explicit negotiations within each couple; this is why the terms of every relationship are different. This negotiation results in a much larger range of potential solutions. What we see as relationships like one-night stands or marriage are emergent solutions to the conflict of the sexes. In expanding this list of relationships that might be considered I have examined “booty call relationships” and “friends-with-benefits” relationships. Secondarily, I think I have provided a reasonable answer for age-old quandary of why playing hard-to-get works. Since I was born in 1978 (which is when the first paper on the topic was published), a few studies have tried to work this out but have generally failed. When Norm Li and I applied a supply and demand model to this topic we found pretty convincing evidence that playing hard-to-get is a mechanisms to alter perceptions of availability to increase demand—interestingly a strategy predicted by Machiavellianism.
Virgil: Are there any current or future projects in your lab that you are particularly excited about?
PK: What I am trying to do now is move towards a more interactionist model of the Dark Triad traits; an experimental personality psychology. I am trying to manipulate certain conditions that would be expected from behavioral ecology to matter and see how those high on the Dark Triad traits behave. For example, in one study in need of replication, we gave participants a hypothetical lottery to allocate to a sibling or a cousin or keep for themselves. In the large money condition, those high on the Dark Triad traits were no more selfish than those low on the traits. However, when the lottery was small, the selfishness that characterizes these traits comes out. What I think is important about this is that it suggests the Dark trait traits are not ubiquitously bad but instead are sensitive to particular conditions. Even the nicest dog, when backed into a corner will bite you.
Virgil: Evolutionary psychology is continuing to grow in popularity. What role does evolutionary theory play in your research?
PK: There are two kinds of evolutionary psychologists, in my opinion. There are closeted evolutionary psychologists and there are out-of-the closet evolutionary psychologists. I am one of the latter but I cannot say this does not come at a cost. Because evolutionary psychology plays such a central role in my research it can make it hard to find a job. Nevertheless, the utility of the paradigm to me is that it gives me a framework for interpreting results, for asking questions, for focusing in on important questions as opposed to just some passing idea I had at the bar, and acts as something like a badge of honor in that most of my friends come from that field. For instance, my best friend and a regular co-author is David Schmitt, we met over research on mating and became friends over Star Trek. The paradigm has been a boon for my career and, especially, my publishing.
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Here are a few other articles written by Dr. Jonason that may be of interest to readers:
Jonason, P.K., Baughman, H.M., Carter, G.L., & Parker, P. (2015). Dorian without his portrait: The psychological, social, and physical health costs of the Dark Triad traits. Personality and Individual Differences, 78, 5-13.
Jonason, P.K. Jones, A., & Lyons, M. (2013). Creatures of the night: Chronotype and the Dark Triad traits. Personality and Individual Differences, 55, 538-541.
Jonason, P.K., Wee, S., Li, N.P., & Jackson, C. (2014). Occupational niches and the Dark Triad traits. Personality and Individual Differences, 69, 119-123.
Jonason, P.K. (2013). Four functions for four relationships: Consensus definitions in university students. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42, 1407-1414.
Jonason, P.K., & Li, N.P. (2013). Playing hard-to-get: Manipulating one’s perceived availability as a mate. European Journal of Personality, 27, 458-469.
Jonason, P.K., Li, N.P., & Madson, L. (2012). It’s not all about the Benjamins: Understanding preferences for mates with resources. Personality and Individual Differences, 52, 306-310.
You can learn more about Dr. Jonason and his research by visiting his website: www.peterjonason.com
Dr. Virgil Zeigler-Hill is an Associate Professor and the Director of Graduate Training in the Department of Psychology at Oakland University. Dr. Zeigler-Hill conducts research that is focused on dark personality features (e.g., narcissism, spitefulness), self-esteem, and interpersonal relationships. His most recent book is “Evolutionary Perspectives on Social Psychology.”
You can learn more about Dr. Zeigler-Hill and his research by visiting his website: http://www.zeigler-hill.com