Narcissism and a second more devastating wave of CoVID-19

  • The CoVID-19 pandemic has been controlled by government policies that restrict individual behaviour 
  • Even if the accelerated vaccine development goes to plan and is successful, government restrictions will be necessary for some time yet 
  • Recent research suggests that, at the height of the CoVID-19 pandemic, people with narcissistic and other “dark” personality traits flouted public health restrictions  
  • Research has also shown that the coronavirus can be spread by a relatively small group of individuals who break public health protocols 
  • Could a small group of asymptomatically infected individuals with narcissistic traits trigger a renewed and significantly more devastating outbreak of CoVID-19?
Narcissism and a second more devastating wave of CoVID-19
Research suggests that in early 2020, at the height of the CoVID-19 pandemic, people with narcissistic and other “dark” personality traits, (Machiavellianism and psychopathy) flouted public health restrictions, such as social distancing, stay-at-home measures, mask-wearing and hand washing, introduced to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The fastest and deepest global economic shock in history

The outbreak of CoVID-19 in December 2019 started an epidemic of acute respiratory syndrome in humans in Wuhan, China, which quickly became a pandemic responsible for the fastest and deepest global economic shock in history. In a matter of weeks, stock markets collapsed, credit markets froze, huge bankruptcies occurred, unemployment rose above 10% and annual GDP rates contracted by 8% or more. In the absence of either a vaccine or a therapy, the social and behavioural sciences were used by governments to help align human behaviour with the recommendations of epidemiologists and public health experts to reduce the impact of the coronavirus outbreak. 
Measures were successful and as nations regained control of the virus’s transmission and reduced the burden on their healthcare systems, restrictions were relaxed or removed to re-energise damaged economies and encourage more viable lifestyles with the virus still in circulation. In many countries, this increased the incidence levels of CoVID-19, hospitalisations and deaths; and governments had no alternative but to re-instate selected restrictions on people’s behaviours.
Now, some ten months after the initial outbreak, governments throughout the world are bracing themselves in the knowledge that a relatively small group of people who flout restrictions could cause the coronavirus to return, which some analysts suggest could be more devastating than the impact of its initial outbreak. This is because healthcare systems have been significantly weakened and are struggling to cope with huge backlogs of patients whose treatments have been delayed because of the coronavirus, economies have been damaged, and the annual winter flu epidemic is expected in most Western developed nations.
In this Commentary

This Commentary describes the findings of three recent studies, which examine the relationships between the Dark Triad traits (i.e., narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy) and behaviours related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Findings suggest that, at the height of the pandemic in March and April 2020, people with narcissistic and psychopathic personality traits were more likely to ignore rules, such as hand washing, social distancing, staying-at-home and mask-wearing and therefore could have become super spreaders of the disease. The Commentary focusses on narcissistic traits. We begin by underlining some of the challenges of developing and manufacturing a CoVID-19 vaccine at scale, which is safe and effective. We then describe Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and the R number, which governments have used to explain how well the virus is being controlled. We also describe the lesser known K metric, which is critical to epidemiologists’ attempts at understanding how CoVID-19 is actually transmitted. We then briefly describe the concepts of super spreaders and super-spreading events, which help to explain how a relatively small group of people can have a significant impact on the transmission of the coronavirus. Brief descriptions of the findings of three recent research studies follow. These suggest that people with narcissistic and other “dark” personality traits, break public health restrictions. Finally, we draw attention to the limitations of the studies and provide some “takeaways”.
Developing and scaling vaccines is challenging

Although scientists look likely to produce a CoVID-19 vaccine much faster than anyone could have predicted, and governments have pre-purchased about 4bn doses of these for delivery at the end of 2020, developing a safe and effective vaccine at scale is challenging. The failure rate of vaccines that reach advanced clinical trials is as high as 80%. Some CoVID-19 vaccines in production that receive regulatory approval might only provide partial or temporary protection, others might require more than one dose to be effective. So, even if the accelerated vaccine development goes to plan and is successful, it is not altogether clear whether this would secure protection for enough people throughout the world to halt the spread of the virus in the medium term. Thus, it seems reasonable to assume that, behavioural techniques to slow or stop the spread of the coronavirus will be needed for some time yet, and people with narcissistic personality traits could reduce the effectiveness of these endeavours.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Narcissism is a pattern of grandiosity, a need for admiration and a lack of empathy. The condition has its genesis  in Greek mythology, and a beautiful and proud young man called Narcissus, the son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope. Many fell in love with Narcissus, but he only showed them disdain and contempt. When Nemesis, the goddess of retribution and revenge, learned of this she decided to punish Narcissus for his behaviour and led him to a pool where he saw his reflection in the water and fell in love with it. Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is rare. Although the term NPD has been used since 1968, only in 1980 was it officially recognized in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is a taxonomic and diagnostic manual published by the American Psychiatric Association. Notwithstanding, in all probability we all know someone with narcissistic tendencies, which we often dismiss as just a “big ego” problem. And, if we are honest, at some point in our lives, we have demonstrated some narcissistic traits. The signs and symptoms of NPD include: (i) having an exaggerated sense of self-importance and a sense of entitlement, (ii) wanting constant, excessive admiration, (iii) expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it, (iv) exaggerating achievements and talents, (v) believing that you are superior and desiring to associate with equally ‘special’ people, (vi) having an inability or unwillingness to  recognize the needs and feelings of others, (vii) expecting special favours and unquestioning compliance, and (viii) taking advantage of others to get what you want. Although research in social and personality psychology has added significantly to our general understanding of narcissism, it has been one of the least studied personality disorders, mainly because of its low societal urgency and health costs. The causes of NPD are unknown, and the condition remains a controversial diagnosis. Some researchers think that overprotective or neglectful parenting styles may have an impact. Genetics and neurobiology also may play a role in the development of NPD. Given the challenges of diagnosing the condition, prevalence rates vary significantly. For instance, in the US, reported prevalence in the general population varies from 0.5% to 5%. NPD is less frequently identified in psychiatric settings, but more often seen in private clinical settings and applied to higher-functioning patients.
R number

In early 2020, during the height of the coronavirus crisis, politicians throughout the world and public health officials constantly referred to the R or R0 number to indicate the spread of the virus. As a consequence, most people now know that R refers to the average number of people one person with coronavirus is likely to infect. R is calculated through a combination of data and modelling, which includes hospital and intensive care admissions, people testing positive, deaths and surveys of people’s contacts. R indicates whether the number of infected people is increasing or decreasing. When R is above 1, the virus will grow exponentially in a population with no immunity. At 1, the disease remains steady. Below 1, the virus will gradually infect fewer people, until the epidemic dries up. However, in real life, some people with the disease infect many others, while others with the coronavirus do not spread the disease at all. This means that the R number hides significant differences between individuals and their impact on virus transmission.
K number

To compensate for this, epidemiologists use an additional metric referred to as K, which describes the pattern of CoVID-19 transmission. K is the statistical value, which indicates  the variability in the number of new coronavirus cases that each person has infected. A high K value (>5), tells us that most people are generating similar numbers of secondary cases. A low value for K (>1)  tells us that a small number of infected people can trigger significant numbers of new cases relatively quickly.
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Key to controlling CoVID-19

Epidemiologists believe the K number, or the role played by variable transmission of the coronavirus, is critical to controlling its spread. Notwithstanding, what makes controlling the transmission of the coronavirus more challenging is the fact that many highly infectious people are asymptomatic. According to research findings of a paper published in the June 2020 edition of The Annals of Internal Medicine, 40% to 45% of those infected by CoVID-19 display no signs or symptoms of the disease at all, which suggests that, “the virus might have a greater potential than previously estimated to spread silently and deeply through human populations”. Thus, understanding why and how the virus is transmitted is key to gaining control of the CoVID-19 pandemic and stopping a second wave of cases.

As we have suggested, there is wide variability in the behaviours of infected individuals and their subsequent roles in spreading the coronavirus. A paper published in the June 2020 edition of Wellcome Open Research analysed the spread of CoVID-19 from China and estimated the K value to be as low as 0.1.  This suggested that 80% of new coronavirus cases were caused by only about 10% of infected individuals. An infected individual who breaks the rules is likely to generate significantly more secondary cases that an infected person who does not broach public health protocols. The Wellcome paper demonstrates how a relatively small number of infected people who flout government guidelines could become ‘super-spreaders’ and cause CoVID-19 to quickly rebound, even if locally eradicated. Thus, identifying and tracking super-spreaders, is fundamental to preventing future outbreaks.
Super spreading events

Super spreaders are responsible for super spreading events, which are not well understood and are challenging to study. Although there is no universally agreed definition of a super spreading event, it is generally assumed to be an incident in which someone passes on the virus to six or more people. Examples of super-spreading events of CoVID-19 include outbreaks in Seoul nightclubs in South Koreameat packing plants in the US and overcrowded clothes factories in the UK.
Three studies

We now turn to the findings of three recent research studies, which suggest that some super-spreaders of CoVID-19 might be people with specific personality traits. The first study we describe is entitled, “Adaptive and Dark Personality Traits in the Covid-19 Pandemic”. It is published in the June 2020 edition of the Journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science and was carried out by Pavel Blagov, who is the director of the Personality Laboratory at Whitman College, USA. The second and third studies are Polish and both published in the July 2020 edition of  Journal of the International Society for the Study of Individual Differences. One is entitled “Adaptive and maladaptive behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic”, and was conducted by researchers from SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Poland. The third study is entitled, “Who complies with the restrictions to reduce the spread of COVID-19?”, which was carried out by researchers from the University of Warsaw.
The Whitman College Study

In late March 2020, Blagov surveyed 502 American adults, to assess their personalities and gauge how compliant they were with public health protocols for reducing the impact of CoVID-19 such as; social distancing, wearing protective gear or following basic hygiene rules. While the majority of participants reported adherence to public health restrictions, some did not. The  study found that individuals with the so-called "Dark Triad" personality traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy) were more likely to purposely disregard protocols intended to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. The respondents who showed disinterest in the recommended health procedures scored higher on sub-traits of meanness and disinhibition. According to Blagov, it is possible that rule breakers become super-spreaders of CoVID-19 and “have a disproportionate impact on the pandemic by failing to protect themselves and others”.  

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At the height of the pandemic, narcissists and others with dark personality traits tended to act contrary to public health recommendations. They showed less inhibition to risk and disregarded other people's safety; manifestations of which included, not covering themselves when sneezing or coughing in public, touching communal facilities, not staying at home, not keeping their distance from others and not washing their hands frequently. The  study concludes 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.”
The  SWPS Study

These findings are supported by the  SWPS study, which is based on an online survey of 755 people (332 male and 423 female) between 15th and 29th March 2020, which was during the first month of the national CoVID-19 lockdown in Poland. The cohort was middle class with ages ranging from 18 to 78, (M = 45.83, SD = 14.98). Over 40% of the participants had either a high school or a university education.  Findings suggest that people with narcissistic or psychopathic tendencies were more likely to hoard essentials during lockdown mainly because they had a heightened sense of entitlement, which manifested itself in being greedier and more competitive.

Also, researchers suggest that participants with narcissistic personalities tend to be self-centred and lack empathy, and therefore more likely to exploit other people. People with psychopathic tendencies may be more cruel, deceitful and manipulative while coming across superficially charming.  According to BartÅ‚omiej Nowak, the lead author of the study, narcissists are: (i) more impulsive, (ii) focused on self-interest, (iii) tend toward risk-taking and (iv) less likely to comply with measures to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

The Warsaw Study

The Warsaw study set out to use the CoVID-19 pandemic to understand who complies with public health restrictions  to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Researchers hypothesised that narcissistic and psychopathic personality traits of rivalry and lack of empathy may be associated with less compliance towards government imposed coronavirus restrictions. The study was based on an online survey carried out between 14th and 30th April 2020, which was at the height of the coronavirus crisis in Europe. There were 263 participants (27.8% male, 71.5% female, 0.8% “other”) aged between 18 and 80  (M = 28.96, SD = 10.64) and about half (49%) had a university education. 
The study’s findings support those of the previous two studies described above. Researchers found that compliance with public health guidelines to control CoVID-19 was low among participants who had narcissistic tendencies. Participants scoring low on agreeableness and high on aspects of narcissism and psychopathy were less likely to comply with public health restrictions. People with narcissistic traits had a sense of entitlement and perceived the restrictions as the Government forcing its will upon them.
Limitations of the studies

All three studies have limitations, which include being based upon relatively small samples. Data are cross sectional rather than time series and collected at the beginning of public health restrictions when it seems reasonable to assume that “people may be more likely to engage in prevention and adhere to restrictions”. The US and Poland are both developed economies with different cultures that might not be relevant for other regions of the world and, in the case of the two Polish studies, participants were drawn from a relatively homogeneous group.

Findings of the three studies described in this Commentary are not sufficiently robust to definitively say that people with narcissistic traits are super-spreaders of CoVID-19. Not everyone who defies coronavirus restrictions does so because of dark personality characteristics. Indeed, there are many factors at play in understanding behaviours during the coronavirus pandemic. Notwithstanding, from the evidence presented in the three papers, it seems reasonable to suggest that people with narcissistic tendencies, and who are asymptomatically infected with the coronavirus, could become super-spreaders and have a disproportionate impact on the transmission of CoVID-19.
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