A new study showed that psychopathic personality traits might contribute to the spread of COVID-19. The author found that individuals with those traits were unlikely to follow health protocols.
The association of psychopathic personality traits with COVID-19 transmission spread was unveiled by a researcher at Whitman College. Their findings suggested that the traits could make an individual non-compliant to proper hygiene, social distancing, and other health protocols. Although the research had no means to test actual COVID-19 spread, the findings were concerning due to the role of personality traits. But the findings do not mean those who refuse to follow health protocols are psychopaths. The results were published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
The Effects of Social Distancing in COVID-19
Social distancing is a community measure recommended by public health agencies to limit the spread of highly contagious diseases. Its enforcement has been noted in several major health crises. During the 1916 New York City polio epidemic, public gatherings and certain establishments had been closed to prevent crowding. When the 1918 Influenza pandemic occurred, cities in different countries implemented the same measure to slow down the transmission. It is even applied during SARS in 2003 and the swine flu pandemic in 2009.
According to Statista, a German portal for statistics, many people followed social distancing to avoid COVID-19. The pandemic forced them to change their lifestyle, indicated by a survey from May 25 to 31, 2020. Out of 2,137 adult respondents, 71% in Germany, 77% in the US, and 84% in the UK stayed at home more often. About 70% in Germany, 73% in the US, and 75% in the UK washed their hands more frequently. Around 61% in Germany, 69% in the US, and 78% in the UK applied social distancing. But only 52% in Germany, 66% in the US, and 20% in the UK said they wore face masks outside.
In one scenario, Statista illustrated the effectiveness of social distancing against COVID-19. The scenario involved three governments and a single carrier of SARS-CoV-2. That person spread the virus that led to cases doubling every four days. At Day 36, the cases peaked at 512 and each government had to decide whether or not a measure should be implemented. Government A decided to implement social distancing. Government B decided not to implement the same measure. Government C implemented social distancing but eight days after the cases peaked at 2,000.
The doubling of cases showed the differences on Day 60. Government A successfully slowed down the transmission with 4,096 cases via social distancing applied on the 500-case mark. Government C managed to slow down the transmission with 8,192 cases via the same measure implemented on the 2,000-case mark. But Government B had to deal with 32,768 cases due to the lack of social distancing.
Psychopathic Personality Traits and COVID-19 Health Protocols
Pavel S. Blagov at Whitman College investigated if personality traits could be influential in adhering health protocols. They based their research on the five-factor, triarchic psychopathy, and Dark Triad models. Via a survey, the researcher determined the specific personality traits with substantial influence over a person's tendency to comply or not to health protocols, including proper hygiene and social distancing.
The five-factor model included conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, extroversion, and openness. Conscientiousness referred to health-promoting and risk-avoiding behaviors. Agreeableness referred to compliance with social norms for healthy behaviors. Neuroticism referred to vulnerability to change one's behavior due to fear and worry. Usually, neuroticism would be attributed to risky behavior but health warnings might direct risk-avoidance. Extroversion referred to the aversion to social distancing due to its outgoing and sociable nature. And finally, openness referred to boosts of health behaviors from improved perceptions of risk.
As a cluster of unemphatic callousness, psychopathy partially overlapped the other two Dark Triad traits: narcissism and Machiavellianism. The trait could also be related to boldness, disinhibition, and meanness. A total of 502 respondents between March 20 and March 23, 2020, were instructed to complete an online survey. The survey included previous compliance with health protocols, intention to do it in the future, and their behavior if they contracted COVID-19. They also responded to questions linked to personality traits.
Results showed that most respondents complied with health protocols, even during the early phases of the pandemic. But some did not comply, despite the threat of the coronavirus. Most of those who refused to comply had higher scores in personality traits associated with narcissists and psychopaths.
Specifically, those with low scores in agreeableness or being cooperative and sympathetic, and low scores in conscientiousness or being organized and responsible were less likely to practice proper hygiene and social distancing. Those with high scores in meanness or callousness to others and disinhibition or poor impulse control were less likely to disapprove of risky behaviors linked to COVID-19 infection. Those who scored high on meanness and disinhibition, and claimed if they had COVID-19 might knowingly spread the disease to others.
Dr. Melissa Burkley, an associate professor of social psychology at Oklahoma State University, clarified in the US magazine Psychology Today that the study results were not absolute. Meaning, not every person who refuses to wear a face mask or to follow social distancing is a psychopath. It might be possible their personality traits were wired to self-interest, which could explain their refusal. Still, the findings showed an interesting factor worthy of further research.
"There's no magic bullet. There's no magic vaccine or therapy. It's just behaviors. Each of our behaviors, translating into something that changes the course of this viral pandemic over the next 30 days," said Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the US coronavirus Task Force.
Dr. Birx stated those words back in March 2020. Several months later, the words seem to be truer than otherwise. Since every person has a unique set of personality traits and behaviors, each individual can do their own thing, which can change the pandemic's course. But in this global problem, everyone needs to be on the same page to defeat COVID-19 and bring back the economy.