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Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D.

Entitlement, Narcissism and the Spread of a Virus

The dangers of believing that the rules do not apply to you.

I am based in Los Angeles and, in the last 12 hours, our mayor shut down all bars, movie theaters, gyms, and limited all restaurants to take-out.

I could only wonder what took him so long.

What has been astonishing to me, as I hear from my clients, watch the world at large, and read news reports, is how people have been conducting themselves. People were still gathering in bars, restaurants, other events, and ignoring clear recommendations. With regard to grocery stores, while I do understand the need to ensure there are sufficient food stocks in their homes, especially with families at home for long periods of time, the fact is that purchasing hundreds of rolls of toilet paper and 400 cans of soup makes no sense and shows a certain lack of empathy toward the neighbors who may need those supplies as well.

Public health officials are asking us to stay home for one reason: To cease the spread of the infection, which in turn protects those most vulnerable to the virus—the elderly, and those with some form of compromised immune system. Staying home, in many ways, protects other people more than it may protect us per se. It also keeps us from taxing systems that aren’t ready for this—protecting health care workers, first responders, and giving them the time they need to prepare for the increasing numbers of cases. It is math. This is not a conspiracy by the government to take away happy hour—it is simple infectious disease prevention.

For that strategy to work, people need to be willing to put the needs of the world ahead of their own needs. Folks who are entitled or who are self-focused and egoistic may not be able to connect the dots to help the world at large. As we know, people who are entitled believe the rules do not apply to them, and while that can be merely annoying when they skip the line at Starbucks, it is dangerous when the world is trying to contain a virus.

Research on health behavior change shows us that behavioral change is very difficult on a mass scale—we have seen this in fighting obesity, drug use, tobacco and vaping, HIV prevention—every one of these public health efforts has not gone very well. And sadly, the fight on COVID-19 thus far isn’t either. By and large, people do not engage in significant behavioral-health shifts unless they feel personally vulnerable and that taking necessary precautions will actually benefit them, especially if the precautions are inconvenient. This idea of staying home to protect the greater health of the community is a tough sell, particularly in an era of entitlement.

The challenge is that many of us will get infected, but most of us may not become deathly ill—this has resulted in a ho-hum attitude: why should I miss my day at the mall for other people? This is especially true for those who feel more entitled and are narcissistic. I recently heard a story from a person who has a narcissistic ex. The ex was feeling “inconvenienced” by all of the restrictions. Yet the ex was also coughing, still attended to parties and events, went to the store, and exposed other family members. This is how this thing spreads.

It is devastating to witness the economic impact of this—well beyond the end of this infection, lives will be in tatters—people losing homes, livelihoods, businesses. The quicker we can tackle this, the quicker we can limit other losses.

Sadly, we are living in an era of entitlement, of selfishness, of egotism, of limited empathy. If this virus was making everyone significantly ill or made a visible impact (e.g. like a rash or other visible sign)—the most entitled and selfish amongst us would have felt enough of a personal sense of vulnerability and fear and may have followed the containment procedures more readily. But for these types of personalities, the idea of sacrifice for others is an all but impossible sell. Most health officials recognize that we have lost the battle on containment and at best can hope for mitigation.

Please stop minimizing this and listen to what you are being told to do. I can only hope that we, as a world, may actually emerge from this a little less selfish, less entitled, and a little more willing to keep an eye out for each other. We, as a society, have been hurtling toward a pathological level of selfishness that has already been taking a toll on the mental health of many. We are now seeing, in a very acute way, the toll it may take on the health of the world as well.


About the Author

Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles. She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go.