Moral disengagement, a cognitive mechanism that allows someone to ignore their own sense of moral accountability, might help explain why those with “dark” personality traits are more likely to ignore social distancing guidelines meant to slow the spread of COVID-19.
New research, published in Frontiers in Psychology, found that the dark triad of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism were all linked to moral disengagement, which in turn was linked to reduced social distancing behavior amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“We were trying to offer concrete help to manage the situation. The most important thing to do was to help with contrasting rule breaking behavior. We thought that the psychology of moral disengagement would help with this,” said study author Guido Alessandri, a professor of psychology at Sapienza, University of Rome.
In the study, 1,520 Italian participants (with an average age of 34.62) completed various assessments designed to measure their personality traits, proneness to moral disengagement, trust in others, and compliance with the social distancing guidelines. The participants also estimated how often they left their home since the issuing of Italy’s stay-at home order. The data was collected from March 22 to April 6, 2020.
The researchers found that narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism were all linked to moral disengagement. In other words, people who agreed with statements such as “I tend to manipulate others to get my way” (Machiavellianism), “I tend to lack remorse” (psychopathy), and “I tend to expect special favors from others” (narcissism) tended to also agree with statements such as “If someone loses control during a brawl, he/she is not completely responsible for the consequences of his/her actions” and “Victims generally have trouble staying out of harm’s way.”
In addition, those who scored higher on the measures of moral disengagement, psychopathy, and narcissism tended to report less social distancing. In line with previous research, those who scored higher on measures of agreeableness and conscientiousness, on the other hand, tended to report greater compliance with social distancing guidelines.
But moral disengagement was unrelated to leaving one’s home amid the pandemic. “It is likely that people consider (implicitly or not) going in and out from home a basic and long earned freedom. Moreover, staying at home or exiting may often become necessary in reason of a well-established sequence of daily chores (i.e., buying food supplies, etc.) or the habit to do outdoor activity (i.e., running, training, etc.). In sum, we speculate that disrespecting the stay-at-home order may ultimately not be perceived every time as akin to a moral transgression,” the researchers said.
The researchers also found that trust in government and trust in known others “played a major role” in their results. Those who scored high on Machiavellianism reported lower levels of trust in known others, while those who scored high on psychopathic reported lower levels of trust in unknown others and lower trust in government.
Greater trust in government was associated with greater social distancing and also “helped to counteract the tendency of individuals high in moral disengagement to enact less social distancing behaviors.” Those with greater trust in government also tended to report a lower average number of daily exits from their home.
Greater trust in known others, in contrast, was associated with reduced social distancing. “We believe that this paradoxical aspect of trust can have at least two explanations. From one side, social distancing from known others may be perceived by individuals as impolite, given it is contrary to the warmth style of interpersonal relations. From another side, people may reduce social distancing with known others because familiarity may induce a sense of overconfidence in thinking that they are less likely to be infected,” the researchers explained.
Greater trust in known others was also linked to greater moral disengagement among those high in Machiavellianism, while greater trust in unknown others was linked to greater moral disengagement among those high in psychopathy.
“Like they do with trust that others place in them, people high in psychopathy and Machiavellianism use their own feeling of trust in other people as a signal that others are more or less exploitable. Likely, people high in psychopathy and Machiavellianism use trust as a kind of ‘gullibility compass,’ informing on the degree of exploitability in a social system,” the researchers said.
The findings suggest some remedies against rule breaking behaviors during national emergencies. “Trusting others and the government are important elements of the recipe of rule respecting behaviors, as well as the certainty that deviant behaviors will be readily and appropriately punished,” Alessandri said.
But the study — like all research — comes with some limitations. “Despite using a large sample, open data and pre-registered hypotheses, our study was cross-sectional. Thus, causality could not be proved,” Alessandri explained.
The study, “Moral Disengagement and Generalized Social Trust as Mediators and Moderators of Rule-Respecting Behaviors During the COVID-19 Outbreak“, was authored by Guido Alessandri, Lorenzo Filosa, Marie S. Tisak, Elisabetta Crocetti, Giuseppe Crea and Lorenzo Avanzi.