New research provides evidence that individuals who scored higher in non-clinical psychopathy were more willing to take risks with other people’s lives during the COVID-19 pandemic. The study, which was conducted during the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States, also found that the effectiveness of health-related messaging is dependent on how such messages are framed.
The findings have been published in the International Journal of Psychology.
A body of research known as prospect theory indicates that people are more likely to make risky choices when faced with a decision that could lead to potential losses. When faced with a decision that could lead to potential gains, on the other hand, people tend to favor less risky options. Study author Stephen M. Doerfler and his colleagues were interested in examining prospect theory amid the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak and whether Dark Triad personality traits would influence decision-making.
For their study, the researchers used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform to conduct an experiment with 281 U.S. adults. The study took place in late March 2020, shortly after several states issued lockdown orders to prevent the spread of the virus.
The participants were asked to “imagine that the U.S. is preparing for a larger spread of COVID-19 (the Coronavirus), which is expected to kill 600 people.” They were then asked to select between two different programs to combat the disease, and were randomly assigned to be either in a “gain frame” or a “loss frame” condition.
Those in the “gain frame” condition were asked to select between a program that would save 200 people and a program that would provide “a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and a 2/3 probability that no people will be saved.” Those in the “loss frame” condition were asked to select between a program that would result in 400 people dying and a program that would provide “a 1/3 probability that nobody will die, and a 2/3 probability that 600 people will die.”
The researchers found that participants were more likely to choose the certain outcome when the program was framed as saving lives, but were more likely to choose the risky outcome when it was framed as losing lives. Approximately 66% of participants chose the certain outcome in the “gain frame” condition, while only about 35% of participants chose the certain outcome in the “lose frame” condition.
“Our results indicated that even during a period of an actual threat (e.g., a health crisis), the way in which a question is framed influences risk-based decision-making,” the researchers said. “When the disease problem was framed in a gain scenario (lives saved), individuals were more likely to avoid the probabilistic option and instead opted for the certain option, thereby displaying a bias toward risk-aversion. On the other hand, when the disease problem was framed in a loss scenario (lives lost), individuals were more likely to take greater risks.”
Doerfler and his colleagues also found that those who scored higher on a measure of psychopathic personality traits were more likely to choose the risky options. “Our results showed that framing did not interact with psychopathy to predict risk seeking decisions,” they explained. “Compared to neurotypical individuals, individuals with greater tendencies toward psychopathy were more likely to choose the risk-seeking option in both the gain and loss frames.”
The findings, they added, “suggest that decision-makers with psychopathic tendencies may take unnecessary risks with other people’s lives during a pandemic.”
The study, “The Dark Triad trait of psychopathy and message framing predict risky decision-making during the COVID-19 pandemic“, was authored by Stephen M. Doerfler , Maryam Tajmirriyahi , Amandeep Dhaliwal, Aaron J. Bradetich, William Ickes, and Daniel S. Levine.