People who ignore social distancing rules may have psychopathic personality traits, study finds

© Associated Press People wearing sanitary masks walk in Via Condotti shopping street, in Rome, Italy, Monday, May 18, 2020. Italy is slowly lifting sanitary restrictions after a two-month coronavirus lockdown. (Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse via AP) Associated Press

If reports of people licking toilet seats and intentionally spitting on others during the coronavirus pandemic left you astounded, a new study on the psychology of pandemic behaviors could answer your questions about what motivated their behaviors.

The study, a peer-reviewed pre-print that will soon be published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science, asked 502 people to answer questions online about how often they followed coronavirus pandemic health guidelines, if they planned to follow guidelines going forward, and what they'd do if they were diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The researchers also asked personality-related questions to determine where survey participants fell on scales for conscientiousness, cooperativeness, neuroticism, tendency to take risks, meanness, and lack of restraint.

If participants answered questions in a manner that suggested they had low levels of neuroticism, tendency to take risks, meanness, and lack of restraint, they were more likely to follow social distancing guidelines, but if they scored high in these traits, they were less likely to follow guidelines.

Study author Pavel Blagov said these traits are also common psychopathic traits. 

"I knew that traits from the so-called Dark Triad (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy), as well as the traits subsumed within psychopathy, are linked to health risk behavior and health problems, and I expected them to be implicated in health behaviors during the pandemic," Blagov told PsyPost.

Indeed, his study suggested a small correlation between psychopathic traits and disregard for pandemic public health policies does exist.

People who admitted to ignoring health guidelines may be doing so deliberately

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Blagov said the majority of survey participants said they followed coronavirus health guidelines. But those who didn't follow guidelines answered the survey questions in a manner that suggested they knowingly and purposefully ignored the safety advice.

For example, study participants who scored high on traits like meanness and lack of restraint also said they didn't follow social distancing and hygiene practices like hand-washing.

Blagov said these findings are concerning from a public-health perspective.

"One potential implication from this research is that there may be a minority of people with particular personality styles (on the narcissism and psychopathy spectrum) that have a disproportionate impact on the pandemic by failing to protect themselves and others," he said.

Of course, the study had some limitations. The study sample only contained US adults, so the findings don't represent the entire population's beliefs and underlying psychology about pandemic safety practices.

The self-reported nature of the survey could have also skewed results, though Blagov said it was conducted in March when the pandemic was just ramping up, and may have therefore eliminated some social biases surrounding safety behaviors.

Additionally, Blagov said his study only showed a small correlation between personality traits and pandemic-related behaviors, and it's likely people who don't have psychopathic traits are also ignoring health guidelines.

"The results do not mean that viral disease is spread only by irresponsible or inconsiderate people," Blagov said.

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