cough sneeze
© Shutterstock
Here's another junk psychology paper to add to the heap. It follows a trend common in academia, but especially in the field of psychology. That trend is to come up with some dull and patently obvious hypothesis that anyone's grandmother would already know to be true, design a "scientific study" to demonstrate it, then claim victory when your prediction is supported. You know the drill, something along the lines of "new study shows people don't like it much when they're punched in the face", "...99% children choose cake over boiled vegetables every time", "...loud noises startle babies".

Not only are such studies idiotic to begin with; pop science blogs then either misrepresent the actual studies or hype the results in headlines way out of proportion. The result is a populace dumber than it was to begin with, despite the best intentions of "science educators" - otherwise known as mama's and papa's boys who just repeat in a dumbed-down form what they are told by actual scientists - who are themselves mama's and papa's boys with little actual insight or creativity.

PsyPost has a writeup of the paper in question under the title: Psychopathic traits linked to non-compliance with social distancing guidelines amid the coronavirus pandemic. Let's take a look.

Rain Is Wet, and Psychopaths Don't Follow Rules

The article begins:
New research provides some initial evidence that certain antagonistic personality traits are associated with ignoring preventative measures meant to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.

The study has been peer reviewed and accepted for publication in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science. It is currently available on the PsyArXiv preprint website.

"On March 31, 2020, Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the U.S. government's Coronavirus Task Force, said, 'There's no magic bullet. There's no magic vaccine or therapy. It's just behaviors. Each of our behaviors, translating into something that changes the course of this viral pandemic over the next 30 days.' My experience as a psychological scientist as well as a practicing psychologist has convinced me that the importance of psychology and behavior in the prevention and management of a wide range of health problems is enormous," said study author Pavel S. Blagov, an associate professor and director of the Personality Laboratory at Whitman College.
I mean Dr. Blagov no disrespect, but you don't need to be a scientist, or a psychologist, to know this. We're humans. Humans do things. It goes without saying that any problem - which by necessity involves humans doing things - will involve human psychology.
"This includes personality, or the study of important ways in which people differ. It was clear from reports in the media very early in the COVID-19 pandemic that some people were rejecting advice to socially distance and engage in increased hygiene. There can be many reasons for this, and I thought that personality may play at least a small role in it."
And when it rains, the pavement gets wet.
"I knew that traits from the so-called Dark Triad (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy) as well as the traits subsumed within psychopathy are linked to health risk behavior and health problems, and I expected them to be implicated in health behaviors during the pandemic. There is also prior research suggesting that people high on the Dark Triad traits may knowingly and even deliberately put other people's health at risk, e.g., by engaging in risky sexual behavior and not telling their partner about having HIV or STIs," Blagov told PsyPost.

"Early in the pandemic, and in subsequent months, there were numerous reports of individuals purposefully coughing, spitting, or even licking door handles in public, either as a way to intimidate others or as a way to rebel against the emerging new norms of social distancing and hygiene. I was curious whether the Dark Triad and psychopathy-related traits may help explain such behavior."

The researcher used Amazon's Mechanical Turk to survey 502 U.S. adults between March 20 and March 23, 2020. The online survey asked participants how often they complied with health recommendations on preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus, if they planned to do so, and how they would behave if they became infected. The survey also included several assessments of personality.

"The study took place before health behaviors related to the pandemic had become extremely politicized in the U.S., and when people were still learning about the rapidly evolving situation," Blagov noted.

Most of the participants, the researcher found, were complying with health recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.

"It was encouraging to find that people who participated in my study generally reported engaging in social distancing and hygiene, planning to continue to engage in these measures, and being willing to do what was necessary to protect the health of loved ones, acquaintances, and strangers," Blagov said.
Again, I am fairly certain that my grandmothers would be able to tell me as much (and neither received a PhD). But they'd be able to tell it with a bit more insight than your average psychologist, and with less verbiage: most people follow the rules - whether or not the rules make any sense. They wouldn't be surprised by the following either:
But some participants reported not heeding the advice, which the researchers found was linked to several personality traits.

Blagov found that lower levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness were associated with a reduced likelihood of endorsing health recommendations related to social distancing and hygiene. In other words, people who were less sympathetic/cooperative and people who were less responsible/organized were less likely to engage in preventative measures.

In addition, people who scored higher on the psychopathic subtraits of meanness and disinhibition tended to show less interest in social distancing and hygiene. Meanness and disinhibition also predicted the endorsement of behavior that puts others at risk of infection, such as touching or sneezing on high-use surfaces in public. Disinhibition reflects poor impulse control, while meanness describes the lack of regard for others.

"People scoring high on these traits tended to claim that, if they had COVID-19, they might knowingly or deliberately expose others to it," Blagov told PsyPost.

"One potential implication from this research is 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."
Grandma wisdom: irresponsible people behave irresponsibly. Cold-hearted people behave cold-heartedly. Psychology is perhaps the only scientific field designed to show that adjectives mean what they say they mean. But let's look at this a bit more closely.

It may be offensive to some, but most people are sheep. They believe what others tell them - especially if it comes from people with authority, and to the degree that other people also believe. As long as what they are told is truthful, little harm is done. But truth is not so easy to come by. People are often mistaken, and others lie. That's why we've been eating margarine instead of butter for decades, to bring up just one example.

If the authorities say X is bad for you (whether or not it actually is), and you must do Y to prevent it (whether or not it actually will), most people will follow suit. A small minority will not. One part of that minority will not simply because they are psychopaths, and psychopaths have no regard for other people's rules. As one insightful psychologist put it:
[Psychopaths] think that customs and principles of decency are a foreign convention invented and imposed by someone else ('probably by priests'), silly, onerous, sometimes even ridiculous. ... Natural human reactions - which often fail to elicit interest to normal people because they are considered self- evident - strike the psychopath as strange, interesting, and even comical. (Andrew Lobaczewski, Political Ponerology, pp. 87, 88)
So naturally, if people are told that there is a potentially deadly virus going around, psychopaths will not care. Just as they'll probably sleep with multiple partners even if they have an STD, they will probably even get a little pleasure out of breaking "social distancing" norms and sneezing in people's faces. In fact, they might even pretend to have the virus just to freak people out and terrorize them. Anyone who was once a child playing on a playground knows there are people like this.

But here's what's not so obvious: all of this says nothing at all about the rule in question. The simplicity with which Blagov's results are related is deceptive. And as usual with pop psychology articles, the caveats come last:
Like all research, the study includes some caveats.

"The study's limitations included its use of a non-random, non-probability sample of only U.S. adults; abbreviated trait measures; and newly developed, previously untested health-behavior measures. A likely unintended effect of this may be underestimating the strength of trait-behavior correlations. The results do not mean that viral disease is spread only by irresponsible or inconsiderate people. The correlations were often small, and the scientific definitions of traits are not everyday judgments about character," Blagov explained.
In other words, something else you could have learned from grandma: people have different reasons for not following rules. (I doubt the authors of this paper would accuse any significant portion of the BLM protesters of being psychopathic, for instance.) Not all people who break rules are evil, because not all rules are worth following. If a relatively normal person thinks a rule is worth following (whether it is or not), they will follow it, and pat themselves on the shoulder for doing the right thing. A psychopath won't care. If a relatively normal person thinks a rule isn't worth following (whether it is or not), they will not follow it - if they have enough character to break out of the mental prison of herd instinct. For instance, here are two iconic images of the latter:
Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks breaking a previous form of 'social distancing'
nazi salute refusal
© wikipedia, CC BY-SA
People giving a Nazi salute, with an unidentified person (possibly August Landmesser or Gustav Wegert) refusing to do so.
The not-so-hidden assumption in the above article is that social distancing is necessary, and that it works, both of which are open questions as far as I'm concerned. Since many people are skeptical about the severity of this alleged global pandemic (which compared to something like the Black Death or even the Spanish flu is barely a blip on the radar), chances are there are many who will not "heed the advice" of medical authorities for just that reason. Not because they're irresponsible or mean, but because they think for themselves. It's possible to think social distancing is nonsense without intentionally sneezing on people.

Cheap Science Can Be Dangerous

In the grand scheme of things, this paper is insignificant. Except for its use in casual conversation by people who wish to appear well-informed to their close acquaintances, it will be forgotten. But it does point to a real danger - one that I think vastly outweighs the presumed danger of the virus in question. Psychology and psychiatry have a history of being used and abused by tyrannical nutjobs. In such a scenario, it is not a far leap from "some people who disagree with coerced social distancing are psychopaths" to "watch out for people who question the official narrative, they're probably psychopaths". In fact, that's the kind of misdirection psychopaths are expert at.

I'll close with another excerpt from Andrew Lobaczewski, on the dangers of the misuse of psychology for political purposes:
A normal person's actions and reactions, his ideas and moral criteria, all too often strike abnormal individuals as abnormal. For if a person with some psychological deviations considers himself normal, which is of course significantly easier if he possesses authority, then he would consider a normal person different and therefore abnormal, whether in reality or as a result of conversive thinking. That explains why such people's government shall always have the tendency to treat any dissidents as "mentally abnormal".

Operations such as driving a normal person into psychological illness and the use of psychiatric institutions for this purpose take place in many countries in which such institutions exist. ...

Any person rebelling internally against a governmental system, which shall always strike him as foreign and difficult to understand, and who is unable to hide this well enough, shall thus easily be designated by the representatives of said government as "mentally abnormal", someone who should submit to psychiatric treatment. A scientifically and morally degenerate psychiatrist becomes a tool easily used for this purpose. (Political Ponerology, pp. 179, 180)