New research sheds light on how those with high levels of narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism have reacted cognitively and emotionally to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The study, published in Personality and Individual Differences, indicates that narcissists and Machiavellians appear to have experienced greater distress from the coronavirus outbreak. Sadists, however, have found enjoyment in it.
“When the University of Mississippi shut down in March, my lab was still very interested in studying all the things we typically study, including dark personality,” said study author Carrie Veronica Smith, an associate professor.
“We started asking questions about how people who have a dark personality may be reacting in a such a time, when we are being asked to sacrifice, limit interaction, be really careful, etc. These are people who aren’t necessarily rule followers and concerned about the welfare of others (at least not as concerned as they are about themselves).”
For their study, the researchers used the online survey platform Prolific to collect responses from a nationally representative sample of 412 American adults.
“We were aware that studying college students may not be an ideal sample, as students were facing unique challenges that may not generalize to the larger population. So we aimed to recruit a national sample from around the United States,” Smith said.
The survey asked participants about their thoughts, feelings and behaviors regarding various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and also included psychological measures of narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism.
The researchers found that those who scored higher on measures of narcissism and Machiavellianism tended to report experiencing more negative emotions (such as anger and helplessness) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Machiavellianism and narcissism were also linked to perceiving more instability. Individuals higher in Machiavellianism also tended to be more fearful of contracting COVID-19.
“We interpreted this as these people needing the world to be predictable and consistent for them to be most effective — narcissists are great in their domain, Machiavellians know how to achieve their ends in their domain. When that gets upended (unable to interact with people in known ways, unable to engage in particular behaviors), I imagine that it is profoundly unpleasant,” Smith told PsyPost.
Those who scored higher on psychopathy, meanwhile, tended to report experiencing fewer positive emotional responses to the pandemic. “The world has changed for them to and they have less opportunity to be impulsive and do what they want,” Smith said.
Participants with heightened sadism, on the other hand, were more likely to report experiencing positive emotional responses, such as happiness and relief. “People scoring high in everyday sadism did not have differential experiences and thoughts but did report more positive affect, suggesting that there is some enjoyment for them in watching the upheaval,” Smith explained.
The researchers also found that individuals with high levels of narcissism and psychopathy had lower odds of engaging in cleaning behaviors. But the opposite was true for sadism.
Collectively, the findings highlight that “dark personality matters in understanding people and it matters in ways that people may not expect,” Smith told PsyPost.
“Many people assume that this personality constellation is uniformly bad or problematic. I don’t think that is true,” she continued. “There are contexts in which having a dark personality may be to your benefit (think of leaders or executives). In addition, I think some people may assume that some of their traits (e.g., lack of empathy) make them immune to threats to well-being, like the pandemic. Similarly, I don’t think that is true and our findings suggest that people with dark personalities are not unaffected by the upheaval caused by the pandemic.”
But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“The participants in this study, while from around the country and representing a variety of ages, employment statuses, etc., found time to complete a survey in the middle of a global pandemic. These individuals may be doing a bit better than others if they had the time and inclination to reflect for us.”
The current research asked participants to reflect on their behavior and moods over the past 7 days. But future research should use other methodologies to collect data, such as daily dairy studies, Smith said.
“My lab is also looking at COVID-19 as well from different angles,” she added. “Lauren Jordan (co-author) and I just submitted a paper looking at people’s well-being in COVID-19 with the theoretical underpinning of Self Determination Theory. Generally, people are doing okay in terms of their well-being but, importantly, the same factors that predict well-being during “normal” time periods also predict well-being during the pandemic, which I think speaks well to the power of this theory to work in ordinary and extra ordinary times.”
The study, “Is the COVID-19 pandemic even darker for some? Examining dark personality and affective, cognitive, and behavioral responses to the COVID-19 pandemic“, was authored by Benjamin S. Hardin, C. Veronica Smith, and Lauren N. Jordan.