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A Very Obvious Behavior May Be Related to Psychopathy

A recent study links psychopathic traits and compliance with pandemic rules.

  • A recent study explored whether psychopathic traits are among the reasons someone may not comply with public health guidelines (such as facemask mandates).
  • People in a group with relatively high psychopathy and low empathy scores showed less adherence to some COVID-19 containment measures compared to the rest of the sample.
  • The groups did not differ in how much they followed personal hygiene guidelines.

People who seem charming and sincere when you meet them may not always have the best of intentions. Indeed, part of the definition of psychopathy is the ability to ingratiate oneself with others for the purpose of achieving one's own ends. Perhaps you’ve suffered from an encounter with psychopathic individuals who extracted money or gifts out of you or just plain issued a string of lies that led you to put a misplaced sense of trust in them.

However, behavioral clues could help you improve your psychopath-detecting radar. During the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health officials and local governments continually issue guidelines and updates to those guidelines. Although a number of states in the U.S. are rolling back facemask mandates, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends continued facemask use, even for the vaccinated. Moreover, retail and other establishments, as well as public transportation agencies, impose their own restrictions. People may try to enter these areas without a facemask, or pull theirs off once inside, however.

There may be many reasons for people to flaunt facemask guidelines, including a desire not to obscure one's face or identification with a certain political view. However, a recent study by Lucas de Francisco Carvalho and Gisele Magarotto Machado of Universidade São Francisco (2020) suggests that maybe it's time to consider the role of psychopathy as well.

Citing previous studies, the Brazilian researchers note that people high in empathy are more likely to adhere to containment measures instituted in 2020. Conversely, there is very low compliance among people high in the so-called “dark triad” traits of Machiavellianism (tendency to manipulate others), narcissism (grandiosity and self-absorption), and psychopathy (callousness and social deviance). Indeed, in one of these studies carried out in Poland (Blagov, 2020), people high in dark triad traits actually seemed to go out their way to put other people at risk by exposing them to the virus.

Such observations led de Francisco and Machado to focus on psychopathy, which they believe should be the strongest predictor among the dark triad traits of non-adherence to public health guidelines.

Psychopathic Traits and COVID-19 Containment Measures

Noting that psychopathy is characterized by the tendency to engage in transgressive behaviors, the São Francisco researchers decided to drill down into the specific containment measures that psychopaths would be most likely to violate. They also decided to look at the ability to empathize with other people's feelings.

Using an online sample of 893 participants, ranging from 18 to 79 years old (mean age of 35), the authors released their questionnaire through various social networks (Facebook and WhatsApp), hoping to catch as broad a representation as possible of the adult population. Their sample was, however, comprised mostly of women (80 percent) and many (39 percent) reported having a graduate degree. It’s important to keep these factors in mind when you think about the results, although in some ways the nature of the sample itself may have led to an underestimation of psychopathy’s effects on adherence to public health guidelines.

The web-based questionnaire included nine items divided into these four containment-measure behaviors:

1. Social distancing (three items)

2. Personal hygiene (hand-washing) (three items)

3. Facemask use (two items)

4. Staying home (one item)

To assess personality, de Francisco and Machado used standard measures of psychopathic traits and empathy. The psychopathy scale included items tapping callousness, deceitfulness, grandiosity, impulsivity, irresponsibility, and risk-taking. Empathy was assessed with a measure of the capacity to share or become affectively aroused by the emotions of others.

Turning now to the findings, the connection between psychopathy and containment-related behaviors was striking. Using the personality measures as a basis for categorizing participants, the authors identified 77 people (7 percent of all women and 12 percent of all men) with relatively high psychopathy and low empathy scores (the “tendency to psychopathy” group). These individuals scored particularly high on the callousness dimension of psychopathy and tended to be high in risk-taking and impulsivity as well. In contrast, the “tendency to empathy” group consisted of 816 people (93 percent of all women and 87 percent of all men).

The profiles of the containment-measure scores for these two groups show that psychopathy indeed seemed related to adherence to public health guidelines. As reported by the authors, those in the “tendency to psychopathy” group were less likely to wear facemasks (both men and women). Their scores on social distancing also tended to be lower. The two personality groups did not differ in how much they followed hygienic guidelines (e.g., handwashing), suggesting that even people who are higher in psychopathic traits want to make sure they protect their own health. They just don't particularly care about protecting other people.

As the authors concluded, “psychopathy traits should be accounted for as relevant while establishing public policies to increase and maintain adherence to COVID-19 containment measures” (p. 391). Appeals to the public that emphasize protecting yourself vs. others might therefore hit home with those who tend toward psychopathy.

Potential Implications for Judging Personality

From a personal standpoint, there could be an important takeaway for you from this study as well. In navigating your own social landscape, look carefully at people who appear either uninterested in taking protective measures or who seem to enjoy violating whatever guidelines are in place. Given the Brazilian findings along with related studies, the lack of interest in other people's welfare and desire to engage in deviant behavior might give you more insight into their personalities than they realize.

Pivoting to the issue of the COVID-19 vaccine, you could perhaps go one step further as you try to pick out the people in your life with psychopathic tendencies. If these individuals seek to both flaunt convention and try to protect themselves, you might expect them to try to game the system so that they find eligibility loopholes in the appointment registry of their localities. Not only does this involve violating social norms, but would fit with the tendency to put one's own interests ahead of other people's. It’s too early to see any research on this topic, but the Universidade São Francisco study raises some intriguing possibilities.

To sum up , the containment measures (and vaccine policies) associated with COVID-19 present a new opportunity for people with psychopathic tendencies to violate rules and exploit others. A close look at their behavior may help you on your way to both physical and psychological protection.


Blagov, P.S. Adaptive and dark personality in the COVID-19 pandemic: Predicting health-behavior endorsement and the appeal of public-health messages. Social Psychological and Personality Science. July 2020. doi:10.1177/1948550620936439

Carvalho, L. F., & Machado, G. M. (2020). Differences in adherence to COVID-19 pandemic containment measures: Psychopathy traits, empathy, and sex. Trends in Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, 42(4), 389-392. doi:10.1590/2237-6089-2020-0055