New research provides some initial evidence that certain antagonistic personality traits are associated with ignoring preventative measures meant to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.
“On March 31, 2020, Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the U.S. government’s Coronavirus Task Force, said, ‘There’s no magic bullet. There’s no magic vaccine or therapy. It’s just behaviors. Each of our behaviors, translating into something that changes the course of this viral pandemic over the next 30 days.’ My experience as a psychological scientist as well as a practicing psychologist has convinced me that the importance of psychology and behavior in the prevention and management of a wide range of health problems is enormous,” said study author Pavel S. Blagov, an associate professor and director of the Personality Laboratory at Whitman College.
“This includes personality, or the study of important ways in which people differ. It was clear from reports in the media very early in the COVID-19 pandemic that some people were rejecting advice to socially distance and engage in increased hygiene. There can be many reasons for this, and I thought that personality may play at least a small role in it.”
“I knew that traits from the so-called Dark Triad (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy) as well as the traits subsumed within psychopathy are linked to health risk behavior and health problems, and I expected them to be implicated in health behaviors during the pandemic. There is also prior research suggesting that people high on the Dark Triad traits may knowingly and even deliberately put other people’s health at risk, e.g., by engaging in risky sexual behavior and not telling their partner about having HIV or STIs,” Blagov told PsyPost.
“Early in the pandemic, and in subsequent months, there were numerous reports of individuals purposefully coughing, spitting, or even licking door handles in public, either as a way to intimidate others or as a way to rebel against the emerging new norms of social distancing and hygiene. I was curious whether the Dark Triad and psychopathy-related traits may help explain such behavior.”
The researcher used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to survey 502 U.S. adults between March 20 and March 23, 2020. The online survey asked participants how often they complied with health recommendations on preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus, if they planned to do so, and how they would behave if they became infected. The survey also included several assessments of personality.
“The study took place before health behaviors related to the pandemic had become extremely politicized in the U.S., and when people were still learning about the rapidly evolving situation,” Blagov noted.
Most of the participants, the researcher found, were complying with health recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.
“It was encouraging to find that people who participated in my study generally reported engaging in social distancing and hygiene, planning to continue to engage in these measures, and being willing to do what was necessary to protect the health of loved ones, acquaintances, and strangers,” Blagov said.
But some participants reported not heeding the advice, which the researchers found was linked to several personality traits.
Blagov found that lower levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness were associated with a reduced likelihood of endorsing health recommendations related to social distancing and hygiene. In other words, people who were less sympathetic/cooperative and people who were less responsible/organized were less likely to engage in preventative measures.
In addition, people who scored higher on the psychopathic subtraits of meanness and disinhibition tended to show less interest in social distancing and hygiene. Meanness and disinhibition also predicted the endorsement of behavior that puts others at risk of infection, such as touching or sneezing on high-use surfaces in public. Disinhibition reflects poor impulse control, while meanness describes the lack of regard for others.
“People scoring high on these traits tended to claim that, if they had COVID-19, they might knowingly or deliberately expose others to it,” Blagov told PsyPost.
“One potential implication from this research is that there may be a minority of people with particular personality styles (on the narcissism and psychopathy spectrum) that have a disproportionate impact on the pandemic by failing to protect themselves and others.”
Like all research, the study includes some caveats.
“The study’s limitations included its use of a non-random, non-probability sample of only U.S. adults; abbreviated trait measures; and newly developed, previously untested health-behavior measures. A likely unintended effect of this may be underestimating the strength of trait-behavior correlations. The results do not mean that viral disease is spread only by irresponsible or inconsiderate people. The correlations were often small, and the scientific definitions of traits are not everyday judgments about character,” Blagov explained.
“Future research should look into actual (not self-reported) health behavior and whether it shows similar links to personality (it probably does). Research should also test more ways of framing public-health advice to find messages that may work for the more antagonistic individuals among us. Finally, it would be important to study the mechanisms behind the trait-behavior linkages.”