While we’ve all lived through the same pandemic the past few months, not all of us have responded to the fallout in the same way.
A recent small study suggests that there are some distinct differences in the way people with ‘dark’ personality traits have reacted to COVID-19 .
These dark personality traits include narcissism, psychopathy, sadism and Machiavellianism, and are often linked to negative social outcomes – they’re referred to in psychology as the ‘dark tetrad’.
But can these personality traits predict how individuals respond to a global crisis?
Looking at 402 individuals in the US aged from 18 to 78, researchers from the University of Mississippi found there were some subtle, but noticeable, differences linked to these personality traits – from cleaning behaviours to mood.
“Our findings indicate that during the initial stages of the pandemic in the United States, dark personality differentially predicted cognitive and emotional responses to the pandemic,” the authors write in their paper, published online ahead of print in November 2020.
Recruiting participants online, the researchers had individuals fill out a questionnaire about their feelings, thoughts, and behaviours during the pandemic – and their dark personality traits were ranked using the Dirty Dozen measure and the Assessment of Sadistic Personality test.
Interestingly, people with narcissistic and Machiavellian traits struggled emotionally with the social upheaval that came with the pandemic. But the research found that those who rated themselves as having sadistic traits reported great positive affect in response to COVID-19.
“It may be that these individuals derive pleasure from events that are generally perceived as having a negative impact on society,” the authors write.
To be clear, these differences were statistically significant but still fairly subtle, and this is a study that involved self-reporting and simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers, so it’s not the final word on this issue by any means.
It’s also not to say that the people involved in the study were clinical narcissists or sadists – simply that they expressed having some of those traits.
But it’s an important and interesting insight into how different personality types respond to large-scale social upheaval, like the one we’re currently living through.
On top of the emotional responses, the researchers looked into how the personality types changed their behaviour in response to the pandemic.
The results showed that none of the dark personality traits were predictors of hoarding behaviour. But those with narcissistic or psychopathic traits were less likely to engage in regular cleaning behaviours, such as wiping down frequently touched areas.
In fact, the higher they scored in terms of narcissism and psychopathy, the more their cleanliness behaviour decreased.
While individuals with Machiavellian traits were more fearful of contracting COVID-19, those with narcissistic traits reported taking part in behaviours that helped those affected by the pandemic.
That might sound counter intuitive, but the researchers say this is backed up by previous research that found narcissists may take part in prosocial behaviours to get approval from others.
Two earlier studies published in July and November found that some of the dark personality traits could predict how likely people were to follow public health advice, such as social distancing and wearing a mask.
But this research didn’t find that was the case – on a positive note, most of the participants said they were already engaging in social distancing, frequent handwashing, and avoiding travel and in-person gatherings.
This difference in results could be due to the fact the pandemic is a “‘strong situation’ in which situational cues overpower the role of personality” in predicting people’s behaviour, the researchers suggest.
While the study only looked at links, not what was causing these differences, the researchers suggest that how the dark tetrad responds to crises may have something to do with how important social stability is to each of the personality traits.
Narcissists rely on social feedback to support their self-image, and Machiavellians are known to exploit others in the social system to meet their own goals.
The fact that these two personality traits were particularly likely to perceive the pandemic as a threatening situation and experience negative emotions hints “that these individuals depend on stable social structures to attain their goals and react negatively to perceived social instability,” the researchers write.
“Individuals with more antisocial traits (psychopathy and sadism) were not as threatened by the pandemic.”
Importantly, researchers in the past have questioned whether psychopathy and Machiavellianism are actually separate constructs at all – but this research suggests that the difference in the degree to which people with these traits rely on stable social environments may be a key distinguishing point.
Of course, the team also notes the limitations of the work – given the questionnaires were all self-reported and conducted unsupervised. Some of the measures they used are also not validated by previous research.
And while the sample size was representative of the broader US population, it only captured them in one moment in time. Further research needs to be done over a longer time period in order to fully understand how different personalities have responded to this ongoing crisis.
But as the world braces itself for more upheaval in the coming decades, thanks to climate change and resource scarcity, knowing more about how personality types may respond to social strife is crucial. And this is a good starting point.
“The results of the current study represent an important addition to our understanding of how dark personality traits function in uncertain times,” the researchers write, “and to our general understanding of the psychological experiences of people living through a global pandemic.”
The research has been published in Personal and Individual Differences.