Psychologists have found that the “Dark Triad” of personality — psychopathy, Machiavellianism and narcissism — is associated with reduced engagement with COVID-19 prevention behaviors during the pandemic. But, according to new research, this does not appear to be entirely true for another set of traits known as the “vulnerable Dark Triad.” The new findings have been published in Personality and Individual Differences.
“Research has shown even from the 1940s that there are types of psychopathy, differentiated by anxiety levels,” explained study author Alyson E. Blanchard of the University of Salford.
“Primary psychopathy describes someone who is cold, callous and manipulative, whilst secondary psychopathy concerns someone who is antisocial, risk-taking and sensation seeking and much more reactive in nature. They are also underpinned by different etiological pathways in which genetics play a more influential role in primary psychopathy, whilst a more heterogeneous mix of both genetic and environmental factors are implicated in secondary psychopathy.”
“Congruently, similar differences are evidenced in narcissism, whereby grandiose narcissism describes the most familiar type of individual who is egotistical and thinks they are better than everyone else, whilst the vulnerable (covert) narcissist behaves likewise but becomes hostile and antagonistic when other people don’t agree,” Blanchard explained.
“Despite this research, the Dark Triad only considers its constituent parts (psychopathy, Machiavellianism and narcissism) as mono-constructs, and there is ongoing debate as to the nature of Machiavellianism – whether it is simply psychopathy or something unique.”
“Therefore, I am interested in whether Dark Triad traits perform differently from those of the vulnerable Dark Triad, it’s neurotic counterpart consisting of secondary psychopathy, vulnerable narcissism and borderline personality disorder. The COVID-19 pandemic presented an interesting and novel context for exploring these differences further.”
In the study, 263 participants completed measures of engagement with COVID-19 prevention behavior, fear of COVID-19, believe in COVID-19 conspiracy theories, and perceived coronavirus severity. They also completed assessments of primary psychopathy, secondary psychopathy, grandiose narcissism, vulnerable narcissism, and borderline personality disorder. The participants were recruited during April 2021 from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform.
In line with previous research, Blanchard and her colleagues found that those higher in grandiose narcissism viewed COVID-19 as less serious (e.g. “no more severe than the flu”) and believed in COVID-19 conspiracy theories, which in turn was associated with reduced COVID-19 prevention behavior, such as handwashing.
Similarly, those higher in primary psychopathic traits and secondary psychopathic traits also took the pandemic less seriously, which explained their reduced engagement in COVID-19 prevention behavior.
“Uncaring and self-centred individuals took the pandemic less seriously and subsequently engaged in less prevention behaviors,” Blanchard told PsyPost.
Vulnerable narcissism, in contrast, was not directly or indirectly associated with COVID-19 prevention behavior, “which suggests that people high in these traits are occupied by issues they regard as more important, such as the outcomes of their interpersonal situations,” the researchers said.
“This study further demonstrates how these phenomena have contrasting outcomes in the way that individuals high in these traits respond to situations,” Blanchard explained. “Whilst Dark Triad research is illuminating at a broader level, detail is missed when subtypes of low agreeable traits are not examined.”
“Considering the portrayal of psychopathy and narcissism in popular culture, it is important that these portrayals are consistent with the scientific literature,” Blanchard said. “Often improbable ‘psychopaths’ are depicted whereby a cold, callous and instrumentally violent character is also emotionally reactive. Furthermore, there are implications for debates about whether individuals are ‘born’ evil – understanding the differences in developmental pathways should provide context for understanding how low agreeable and antisocial behaviours manifest.”
Those with higher borderline personality traits viewed COVID-19 as less severe but they were also more fearful of the virus, which was associated with greater engagement in prevention behaviors. “These relationships tie into seeing the world as hostile and untrustworthy,” the researchers said.
“Further research should continue to explore both the Dark Triad and vulnerable Dark Triad together so that greater understanding of the consequences of these traits can be achieved,” Blanchard said.
The study, “COVID-19 prevention behaviour is differentially motivated by primary psychopathy, grandiose narcissism and vulnerable Dark Triad traits“, was authored by Alyson E. Blanchard, Greg Keenan, Nadja Heym, and Alex Sumich.