Are Psychopaths Spreading COVID at a Higher Rate?

COVID non-compliance is associated with psychopathic personality traits.

Posted Aug 31, 2020

Right now, we are living in a real-world version of the classic thought experiment “The Tragedy of the Commons.” The thought experiment: Imagine a pasture that is shared by a small community. Every day each townsfolk takes their one milking cow to graze on the pasture and eat the grass, and the pasture is able to sustain this modest number. But what happens if one or two townsfolk get a little greedy: “Hey, if I have two cows, I’ll double my income.” He starts bringing a second cow to the pasture. But the pasture can’t sustain this extra burden. Soon the grass is all gone, the cows starve and everyone in town suffers, including those few selfish townsfolk.

The point: When we are placed in an interdependent situation where one person’s behavior affects another person’s outcome, we all have to do what is best for the whole, not the individual. THE Problem is, some of us are better at this type of interdependent thinking than others.

Right now, we are living through the most extreme case of interdependence our country has seen in several generations. Not only does our behavior affect one another, but it also has the potential to kill one another. As I said above, not everyone is equipped to cope with this type of extreme interdependence. Just look at what is happening around the country as universities reopen. On each campus, tens of thousands of students’ lives are being put in jeopardy, and in some cases, their chance at an education is being taken away, because a few hundred students felt having one epic party was more important than following the rules.

And college students aren’t the only ones displaying this type of I-do-what-I-want behavior. The Sturgis motorcycle rally held a few weeks ago has already been linked to more than 100 cases of COVID across eight states, and odds are this number will only go up as time passes and the virus spreads. Plus, we’ve all seen those “viral” videos (pun intended) of people purposefully spitting on others, wiping their nose on another person’s shirt, or licking door handles as a way to prove their non-compliance with health guidelines.

In the era of COVID, what differentiates the compliant from the non-compliant? The answer may lie in the study of psychopaths.

A recent study in Social Psychological and Personality Science examined if people with psychopathic traits are less likely to abide by preventive measures designed to halt the spread of COVID-19. In it, 502 U.S. adults were surveyed between March 20 and March 23 of this year (notably, this was during a time when the pandemic was just starting in this country and health behaviors had yet to be fully politicized in the way they are now).

Participants were asked to indicate how often they complied with the virus prevention measures in the past, if they planned to do so in the future, and how they would behave if they contracted the virus. In addition, they responded to questions that assessed various personality traits.

The results showed that even this early on in the pandemic, most people were complying with the health recommendations. But just like in the Tragedy of the Commons where most townsfolk but not all were complying, there were some in this study that refused to comply. These people were more likely to score high in certain personality traits associated with psychopaths and narcissists.

First, the researcher found that people low in agreeableness (less sympathetic and cooperative) and low in conscientiousness (less responsible and organized) were less likely to practice social distancing and hygiene measures like washing hands thoroughly.

Second, people high in the psychopathic sub-traits of meanness (callousness towards others) and disinhibition (poor impulse control) were more likely to endorse behaviors that put others at risk of infection, such as touching or sneezing on high-use public surfaces like door handles and railings. Worse still, people who scored high on these traits claimed that if they had COVID, they might knowingly and deliberately expose others to it.

The researcher wasn’t equipped to test actual COVID spread but his initial findings are pretty concerning. The results suggest there may be a small minority of people—namely people with psychopathic and narcissistic personality styles—that are at greater risk for spreading the virus because they fail to protect themselves and others.

To be clear, these results do not mean that every person who refuses to wear a mask is a psychopath. But it does mean that people with these personality traits—people who are essentially wired to act in their own self-interest—appear to be less likely to comply with health recommendations and therefore are likely at higher risk for spreading the disease. More research is needed on this topic but it may be possible to find ways to frame health recommendations in a way that appeals to these at-risk-spreaders, such as focusing on the selfish benefits rather than selfless ones.

Way back in March, Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the U.S. government’s coronavirus Task Force, said, “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.” Five months have passed since then (feels more like five years) and yet these words are no less true.

To stop this pandemic, get the economy up and running again, and get our kids back in school, it is going to take the compliance of every single American. If not, as the Tragedy of the Commons shows us, a few people behaving selfishly will ruin things for themselves as well as the rest of us.