Narcissists more likely to avoid COVID-19 safety measures, study finds

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — COVID-19 safety measures, like wearing a mask or getting the coronavirus vaccine, help protect both the individual and those around them. However, not everyone participates in these efforts and a new study is revealing what kind of personality traits contribute to this. Researchers from Penn State find narcissists are more likely to ignore COVID-19 health and safety recommendations.

Study authors report a person’s individual “level of narcissism” influences whether they will be open to following COVID-19 mitigation strategies. They studied two types of narcissism during this project, grandiose and vulnerable.

Grandiose narcissism refers to people who strive to attain a high social status and have others see them as important, powerful, and worthy of admiration. Vulnerable narcissism, on the other hand, typically refers to selfishness, egocentrism, and being especially sensitive to others’ judgments and opinions.

Narcissism can even push some to demand others wear masks

Even after accounting for a variety of potentially influential factors (personal politics, perception of risk, state policies), the study still found that people who scored high in grandiose narcissism were less likely to wear a mask or take the COVID vaccine. Interestingly, when such individuals did choose to wear a mask, they were actually more likely to tell others to wear their masks as well.

Similarly, people who scored high for vulnerable narcissism were also less likely to get vaccinated or wear masks – but only if their personalities were especially self-centered and egocentric. Conversely, they were actually more likely to take these safety measures if their personalities were more sensitive to judgment and criticism.

“If you want to convince someone high in grandiose narcissism to wear a mask or participate in other mitigations, make that mitigation cool and unique to fulfill their need to stand out,” says study co-author Peter Hatemi, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Penn State, in a university release. “For those over sensitive to judgment, you could tell them the mitigation is socially sanctioned. Both of these strategies seem to tap into these personalities more than emphasizing the greater good, for example.”

Everyone has a little narcissism in their personality

It’s no secret that COVID-19 safety measures in the U.S. have been polarizing. Many recent studies suggest politics are the main cause of that polarization. For example, one found that conservatives were less likely to feel susceptible to COVID-19 and were more likely to believe the media was exaggerating the danger of the pandemic. The research team, however, suspected individual personalities must be playing a role as well.

“In a time when people were being encouraged to wear a mask or get vaccinated to help not just themselves but also other people, there was one personality trait that stuck out to us as a possible explanation for those that didn’t want to comply,” Prof. Hatemi explains. “My coauthor and I had been researching narcissism in other capacities for quite some time and it seemed like it could be strongly linked to these types of behaviors.”

These findings are based on a survey of 1,100 U.S. adults in March 2021. Participants answered various questions about COVID-19, and then filled out assessments designed to measure levels of narcissism.

The term “narcissism” tends to have a negative context in pop culture, but study authors point out that we’re all a bit narcissistic at the end of the day. Narcissism is an aspect of everyone’s personality, to varying degrees. Only once narcissism reaches extreme levels does it become a diagnosable personality disorder.

“We all have some level of grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. It’s a natural part of all humans’ personalities because without it, we wouldn’t function properly,” Prof. Hatemi concludes. “But this part of narcissism we all have, it can get easily fed by political messaging and hijacked into these different stories, which is what we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The study is published in the journal Current Psychology.

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