People who shun face masks and social distancing may be sociopaths, finds study

Researchers found that callousness, deceitfulness and manipulativeness, possible signs of a sociopath, were commonly found among people who broke Covid-19 safety rules 

                            People who shun face masks and social distancing may be sociopaths, finds study
Representational purpose (Getty Images)

The new coronavirus can be spread by people who do not have symptoms and do not know that they are infected. That is why health experts have recommended that people should wear masks in public and practice social distancing. However, not everyone follows the safety rules and according to researchers, it could be because such people are more likely to have the traits of a sociopath.

A sociopath is a term used to describe a person who has antisocial personality disorder. According to Mayo Clinic, people with this disorder tend to antagonize, manipulate or treat others harshly or with callous indifference. They show no guilt or remorse for their behavior.

In the current study, a research team found that callousness, deceitfulness, irresponsibility and manipulativeness, among others — possible signs of a sociopath — were traits commonly found among people who broke Covid-19 safety rules. The findings reveal that antisocial traits, especially lower levels of empathy and higher levels of callousness, deceitfulness and risk-taking, are directly associated with lower compliance with containment measures. 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, say authors from Universidade Estadual de Londrina and Universidade São Francisco, both based in Brazil. Exposing oneself and others to risk, even when it can be avoided, is a typical trait for people with antisocial tendencies, they explain.

"We used two internationally recognized scales to assess empathy (ACME) and traits of personality disorders (PID-5). With their results combined, we were able to identify two groups: the empathy group (people engaged in understanding other people’s feelings, motivations, and engaged in developing positive social interactions) and the opposite, the antisocial group (people that seek personal benefit in social interactions, feel socially detached, and engage in antagonist behavior)," study author Dr Fabiano Koich Miguela from Universidade Estadual de Londrina told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).

"In our findings, the empathy group showed higher engagement in Covid-19 containment measures, reporting that they find it important to use the facemask, to constantly engage in hand hygiene, to maintain social distance, in benefit for both themselves and other people. On the other hand, the antisocial group reported they engaged less in those measures, minimizing both their importance and the severity of the disease," study author Dr Lucas de Francisco Carvalho from Universidade São Francisco told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).

In the study, the empathy group showed higher engagement in Covid-19 containment measures (Getty Images)

The study, which has been published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, investigated the relationships between antisocial traits and compliance with Covid-19 containment measures. The sample consisted of 1,578 Brazilian adults, aged 18-73 years. "While containment measures aim at 'flattening the curve' of contamination, they have been investigated in psychological and psychiatric science for its potential impact in mental health, such as anxiety, depression, phobias, psychological stress, and even suicide. Additionally, psychological features and mental health have been studied regarding their expected influence on the success or failure of containment measures. It is noticeable that compliance with containment measures varies greatly between people," writes the team.

Accordingly, the authors conducted online tests and asked questions such as "do you think it is necessary to use facemask (that protects nose and mouth)?" The analysis revealed the existence of two groups: people with a higher tendency to antisocial traits (antisocial pattern group) and people with a higher tendency to empathy (empathy pattern group). The antisocial pattern group presented higher scores in all antisocial personality disorder traits such as callousness, deceitfulness, hostility, impulsivity, irresponsibility, manipulativeness and risk-taking, and lower scores in affect resonance, which is an indicator of empathy. The empathy pattern group presented the opposite. The researchers found that people who tested for high levels of empathy were more likely to follow coronavirus safety measures. 

The team suggests that the analysis can be useful for public health policies and interventions can be carried out aiming at greater awareness and consequent compliance with containment measures. "We believe that there are lessons for policymakers in our study. Perhaps more announcements presenting the importance of containment measures for the good of all, and not just for an individual, present the benefits that can be achieved if everyone contributes, and stimulate the sense of togetherness that has been so lacking in Brazil lately," Dr Carvalho told MEAWW.

The authors say that there was a secondary result. "We collected data throughout 15 weeks (from March to June), and found that the proportion of people engaged versus people not engaged in containment measures remained about the same. That indicates that, at least in Brazil, people are not changing their habits regarding quarantine and containment measures. We did not further discuss this matter in our paper, but it may be an explanation to why the number of cases in Brazil is still not reducing," emphasizes Dr Miguela.

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