by Steve Golden —
Newsweek recently ran a headline declaring “Narcissists and Psychopaths Are More Likely to Refuse to Wear Masks, Says New Research.” Newsweek and other outlets waxed eloquent about two studies supposedly showing that anyone who refuses to comply with COVID-19 restrictions has severe psycho-social defects. This is yet another example of why we shouldn’t trust the media to sum up research results.
Both studies relied on questionnaires and self-reporting for their data, which is generally not considered a strong research method. At least one of the studies was administered via social media, and both used an exclusively Polish audience. These are significant weaknesses when trying to generalize a study to a worldwide or even just an American population. The personality traits in question were primarily the “Dark Triad,” which refers to “Machiavellianism (i.e., manipulativeness and cynicism), narcissism (i.e., grandiose self-view and sense of entitlement), and psychopathy (i.e., impulsivity and emotional callousness).”*
What’s important to note here is that the authors in both studies found some small correlations between these personality traits and flouting COVID-19 restrictions—but they ultimately concluded that the data was contradictory and that personality traits could not account for the vast majority of non-compliant behaviors. Newsweek acknowledges as much but buries the lede. The author waited until the end of the piece to explain, long after average readers have stopped reading (many of them likely didn’t read past the headline):
Using certain statistical methods, individual personality traits became almost negligible in measuring responses, while perception of the situation more substantially predicted the likelihood of complying with restrictions like face-mask and social-distancing mandates. According to the study’s authors, this suggests that “COVID-19 served as a ‘strong situation’ driving compliance more than personality.” . . . While psychopaths and narcissists may be less likely to comply with coronavirus restrictions, the evidence doesn’t suggest that personality disorders are to blame for social-distancing failures and mask-mandate pushback.Andrew Whalen, Newsweek
What’s the average social-media-scroller to conclude based on the headline? Freedom-loving Americans who protest mask restrictions are narcissists and psychopaths, based on science!
In reality, narcissism and psychopathy are diagnoseable disorders that affect a tiny fraction of a population. I won’t elaborate here, but there’s room for healthy criticism of applying these “traits” to the average person (e.g., one of the studies classed those who were prepared with more food as narcissistic hoarders). The majority of people’s choices, especially during the last 5 months, are driven by a multiplicity of factors. But Newsweek politicizes the issue and encourages society to view non-conformers as psycho-socially deficient.
There are poorly designed studies, and there are poorly derived conclusions. I chose my title as a tongue-in-cheek demonstration of the latter. It’s just as easy to look at those two studies and determine that the people who comply with COVID mandates—who scored high on personality traits related to agreeableness and caring about the group—are closet Communists or simply “useful idiots” who don’t think for themselves.**
But that’s an unfair and harsh generalization, isn’t it? We all know people who love their American freedom and disagree with government overreach or the poor science behind these mandates, but who comply for any number of reasons—love for high-risk family, fear of retribution from an employer, duty to obey the government, a desire to choose their own produce in the grocery store . . . the list goes on. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the pandemic, it’s that obedience to government dictates must be got at any cost.
**The term useful idiot is political jargon referring to a person who can be easily manipulated into propagandizing for a cause without fully understanding the agenda behind it.
†Image adapted from original by Guilherme Santiago.