Who embraces directions to socially distance, boost hygiene, and protect others? Personal beliefs play a role, culture can play a role, but according to several new studies, personality traits are also involved.
Psychologists love fancy names, and the Dark Triad is no exception. The triad refers to the personality traits of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism (a psychological trait centered on interpersonal manipulation and moral indifference) and it’s a fitting description. Although it’s not as simple These are indeed dark, malevolent personality traits, what normal people would tend to call “not a nice person”. People scoring high on these traits tend to be less compassionate and empathetic, and as it turns out, also tend to care less about pandemic prevention.
In one of the studies, led by Magdalena Zemojtel-Piotrowska, the authors note that Dark Triad traits are associated with less prevention and more hoarding (remember the toilet paper hoarding from a few months ago?).
The team surveyed 755 individuals in Poland during the first stages of the pandemic and lockdown. The higher people scored on Dark Triad traits, the less likely they were to support prevention measures — which was exactly what researchers suspected.
“As hypothesized, participants characterized by the Dark Triad traits were less likely to engage in preventive behavior and more likely to hoard,” the study notes. “Such findings are congruent with details about the fact that people who are high on these traits are more impulsive, focus on self-interest, and tend toward risk-taking. Participants higher on the Dark Triad traits seemed to be concerned with negative aspects of prevention and not consider the benefits of it.”
The findings were also confirmed in a somewhat similar second study.
Many people aren’t playing their part
In a separate study that has not yet been peer-reviewed, Pavel S. Blagov, an associate professor and director of the Personality Laboratory at Whitman College, surveyed 502 US adults, also in the early stages of the pandemic (March 2020). Most participants were complying with prevention measures, which was encouraging. Meanwhile, the ones who weren’t compliant scored lower on personality traits such as agreeableness and conscientiousness. The people who showed the least interest in social distancing scored higher on psychopathic traits.
“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.”
A more complex picture
However, things aren’t as simple as saying that “good people play their part and bad people don’t”. For starters, the studies have a fairly small sample size of only a few hundred participants. Secondly, the correlations were fairly small, and Poland and the US are both developed countries with different cultures that might not be relevant for other parts of the world– so basically, we should take the findings with a big grain of salt.
Not everyone who has dark personality traits is reckless in the face of the pandemic, and not everyone who is reckless has dark personality traits.
“So-called dark personality is not as problematic in the face of the pandemic as one could assume. The most important is what such people think about the coronavirus and about adopting preventive measures. One could expect that narcissists just do not care about others and therefore refuse to adopt to social rules recommended by medical experts. Yet, the picture is more complex,” Zemojtel-Piotrowska told PsyPost.
However, the first study also suggests that personal beliefs can play a role that’s just as or even more important as personality traits — and this could be good news as it leaves room for progress, Zemojtel-Piotrowska concludes:
“We cannot change a personality, but we could change the beliefs. So, the main practical finding is that we could encourage egocentric ‘dark’ people to adopt preventative measures by showing them that prevention works and it is not as demanding as they seem to assume.”