Narcissism May Play a Role in People’s Pandemic Response
Personality traits could influence whether people decide to follow guidelines.
Posted Sep 22, 2020
Throughout the coronavirus crisis of 2020, people have embraced — or rejected — different strategies for slowing the spread of the virus by wearing face masks and reducing their close interactions with others. Why is that? Many factors play into these personal decisions, of course, but one major facet could be personality. It appears that people who exhibit “dark” traits associated with narcissism may be less likely to embrace public health behaviors related to the contagious disease.
In a new study, Pavel Blagov of Whitman College in Washington surveyed 500 people online to understand how different personality traits lined up with the endorsement of social distancing and certain public health messages. Overall, people who had higher levels of conscientiousness and neuroticism were more likely to respond to public health messages. Those with “Dark Triad” traits of meanness and a lack of inhibition were less likely to support public health behaviors and more likely to knowingly expose others to infection risks.
Interestingly, most people preferred a public health message that appealed to compassion, such as “Help protect the vulnerable.” However, people with darker traits didn’t really care about that message. Instead, those with distinctly antagonistic traits were more likely to disregard public health messages or act contrary to appeals for altruistic behavior.
“Personality appears relevant to epidemiology and public health communication in a contagious disease context,” Blagov wrote.
For the most part, this makes sense. People who are more conscientious and concerned about others would be more likely to follow health advice that would protect other people, even if they don’t face a high risk of infection. People who exhibit more openness and agreeableness may be more likely to accept new health behaviors that will help themselves and others. People who are more neurotic and worried about infection may be more likely to avoid risks out of fear. People who are more extraverted may be frustrated with social distancing guidelines.
At the same time, people who exhibit narcissistic traits such as callousness, manipulativeness, and a lack of empathy may be less likely to care about these new health behaviors — and the effect on others. They’re more likely to focus on themselves, act recklessly, and be cynical. They particularly hate being constrained and told what to do, which researchers have seen in previous public health research related to risky sexual behaviors, smoking, and alcohol use.
For instance, people with more psychopathic tendencies are more likely to deliberately mislead sexual partners about their HIV-positive status. Those with narcissistic qualities may also knowingly put others at risk of HIV. During the pandemic, people with dark personality traits might dismiss public health messages and put others at risk.
But as Blagov points out, it’s important to avoid conflating these associations too much. The study results don’t mean that only irresponsible and inconsiderate people are spreading the virus, and they don’t mean that those who contract diseases like COVID-19 have dark personality traits. Plus, the correlations in the study were small, he said, and for the most part, people supported the public health messages. But the study does raise important questions for future research.
Another key point is that the survey was conducted between March 20-23 after California and New York issued stay-at-home orders. The pandemic was “new” then, particularly in the U.S., and people likely had certain views then that they may not believe now. After months of public health messages and new behaviors, people may be more likely to adopt certain strategies to slow the spread of the virus — but they may also be growing tired of them. New studies may show us how this has evolved throughout the year and what we may see going into 2021.
To be sure, personality can’t explain all of the multi-faceted reasons why people choose to do what they do, but it’s a start, especially for public health messaging. Researchers have known for decades that people respond differently to campaigns about anti-smoking, anti-drug, and condom use. Essentially, people like messages that align with their views.
For instance, Blagov found that people typically liked compassionate messages, even self-centered ones like “Keep yourself healthy.” Public health officials may be able to incorporate messages like these during the pandemic to appeal to people with all types of personality traits, including narcissists who may be primarily focused on their own health.
Blagov, Pavel S., PhD. 2020. “Adaptive and Dark Personality Traits in the Covid-19 Pandemic: Predicting Health-behavior Endorsement and the Appeal of Public-health Messages.” PsyArXiv. March 28. doi:10.1177/1948550620936439.
Benotsch, E.G., Rodríguez, V.M., Hood, K. et al. Misleading Sexual Partners About HIV Status Among Persons Living with HIV/AIDS. J Community Health 37, 1049–1057 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10900-011-9529-5
Martin, A. M., Benotsch, E. G., Lance, S. P., & Green, M. (2013). Transmission risk behaviors in a subset of HIV-positive individuals: The role of narcissistic personality features. Personality and Individual Differences, 54(2), 256–260. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2012.09.006