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People Who Won’t Wear Face Masks Are ‘More Likely To Be Sociopaths’

A new study explains, at least partially, why some choose not to adhere to containment measures even with increasing numbers of cases and deaths.
September 2, 2020, 8:04am
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Photo courtesy of Adam Nieścioruk / Unsplash

The use of mask as a protection against coronavirus has become a heated point of contention in the pandemic. There have been prominent anti-mask movements in the U.S., all over Europe, and even in India. While initially, scientists did discourage the use of masks calling them ineffective, in the months that have gone by, most have become a vocal advocate for masks. Various experts point out that anti-maskers usually choose to not wear them because they don’t like limits on their behaviour and want “freedom for their faces”, find the extra layer inconvenient, and have received mixed messages about their efficacy in battling the virus.

But in a study done in Brazil, callousness, deceitfulness, and manipulativeness—some possible signs of a sociopath—were traits commonly found among people who broke COVID-19 safety rules. The study found that individuals who showed signs of the so-called dark-triad of personality traits—narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy—were also more likely to trivialise the risks posed by COVID-19 and to avoid regular hand-washing and social distancing.

The findings come from a survey of around 1,600 people in Brazil, which currently has 3.9 million coronavirus cases. The study was conducted by Universidade Estadual de Londrina, a university in a city south of Brazil. The findings were published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Between May 21 and June 29, researchers quizzed 1,578 Brazilian adults about their behaviour and their compliance with COVID-19 measures. This included asking them questions like: Do you think it is necessary to use a face mask/socially distance/wash your hands more frequently?

Each individual who took the tests was then categorised into two groups. The first group—“empathy group”—consisted of about 1,200 people, who had displayed an interest in understanding other people's feelings and motivations. These people also tended to be interested in “developing positive social interactions” with others.

The second group, with about 400 people, had shown signs of antisocial personality disorder—otherwise known as sociopathy or psychopathy, with the two terms often used interchangeably and which most experts believe share similar traits. This group was more likely to feel “socially detached” and to engage in hostile behaviour. It was these people who, the researchers said, were more likely to refuse to wear a mask or follow social distancing rules. The difference between the groups was that those in the antisocial group had higher scores in callousness, deceitfulness, hostility, impulsivity, irresponsibility, manipulativeness, and risk-taking than people in the empathy group.

The researchers also divided participants into four groups according to adherence to containment measures, based on whether the person reported whether it was important.

Exposing oneself and others to risk, even when it can be avoided, is a typical trait for people with antisocial tendencies and with low levels of empathy, said the authors in the study. “These traits explain, at least partially, the reason why people continue not adhering to the containment measures even with increasing numbers of cases and deaths,” the study concluded.

This adds to other research which made similar findings, saying people with psychopathic or narcissistic traits may be more likely to disobey rules to stop the spread of the disease and to hoard items like toilet paper.

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