How Those With "Dark" Personality Traits Reacted To The COVID-19 Pandemic

Some people with sadistic tendencies appear to have seen the pandemic as a positive experience. theskaman306/Shutterstock.com

How did you sadists, psychopaths, narcissists, and those with Machiavellian tendencies react to the COVID-19 pandemic? Well, it looks like this global health crisis was a stressful and worrying time for most people with "dark tetrad" personality traits, but not everyone. 

A new study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, has looked at how people who display “dark personality traits” — narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism, known as the "dark tetrad" — responded to the social shake-ups from COVID-19. Psychologists from the University of Mississippi asked a nationally representative sample of 412 people in the US to complete a questionnaire designed to assess where they sat on the dark tetrad scale as well as their perceptions of the COVID-19 pandemic and their behavior reacting to it.

By their workings, people who scored highly for the traits narcissism (characterized by self-obsession and desire for attention) and Machiavellianism (characterized by a tendency to manipulate others) found themselves under some emotional strain during the pandemic. While only high Machiavellis reported feeling greater fear of being infected with COVID-19, both groups said they were negatively affected by the wider instability caused by COVID-19.

“These results suggest the pandemic may be especially threatening to these individuals because they perceive it as a threat to the stability of their social environment,” the study authors write. 

However, despite being worried about the pandemic, people who were higher in narcissism and psychopathy were less likely to practice cleaning behaviors, such as wiping down frequently touched areas. The researchers think this is likely a reflection of these people tending to be more impulsive and not considering the long-term consequences of their actions.

On the other hand, people who scored highly for psychopathy (characterized by “cold-hearted” behavior) and sadism (the tendency to derive pleasure from others' suffering) did not appear to be fearful nor stressed out by the global health crisis. In fact, some people with sadistic tendencies appear to have seen the pandemic as a positive experience. 

“Sadism has been associated with taking pleasure in the suffering of others, so sadistic individuals may experience more positive emotions in situations like the pandemic that appear to negatively impact the quality of people's daily lives,” the authors posit. 

People with psychopathic tendencies, however, reported experiencing negative feelings during the pandemic, which the study authors argue could be because it provided “fewer opportunities for these individuals to engage in the impulsive tendencies associated with psychopathy.”

Those that scored highly for narcissism reported carrying out behaviors that helped those affected by the pandemic, which makes sense when the authors point out this could be to receive approval from others and reinforce their self-image, the questionnaire was self-reported after all.

Perhaps unexpectedly, most people appear to have followed social distancing measures, regardless of where they sat on the “dark” spectrum (see where you fall with this quiz here). 

The study does have some limitations that should be noted. Self-reported studies such as this are notoriously problematic when it comes to reliability as people's answers can easily be influenced by a range of factors. That’s especially true for assessing socially undesirable behaviors that could be viewed negatively, and for assessing personality traits that can be selfish or lack empathy, something people with dark tetrad traits know how to mimic or hide. Nevertheless, the researchers argue their work reveals some eye-opening insights into how humans have reacted to this deeply unusual time. 

“The results of the current study represent an important addition to our understanding of how dark personality traits function in uncertain times and to our general understanding of the psychological experiences of people living through a global pandemic,” the study concludes.

For more information about COVID-19, check out the IFLScience COVID-19 hub where you can follow the current state of the pandemic, the progress of vaccine development, and further insights into the disease.

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