Ignoring social distancing rules could be a psychopathic trait, researchers say

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Last week at the grocery, a maskless bro kept moving toward me in aisles and lines. Every time I took a step back from him with my cart, he took a step towards me with his, and smiled in a way that I can only describe as predatorial. I got the feeling — one that most female socialized folx and many others will recognize — that he enjoyed intimidating me. It would have been creepy before the pandemic, but in the context of coronavirus, it felt threatening, like he had no compassion for my obvious fear. This experience made me wonder: Could people who refuse to social distance lack empathy for other humans in general?

Some of them might. New research conducted at Whitman College suggests that there could be a link between psychopathic personality traits and non-compliance with social distancing guidelines. Study author Pavel S. Blagov, an associate professor and director of the Personality Laboratory at Whitman College surveyed 502 people across the country in March, at the beginning of the pandemic, assessed participants personality traits, and asked them to self-report about their compliance with public health recommendations. The study suggests that people with low levels of social conscientiousness were more likely to reject social distancing recommendations, PsyPost reported.

Does that mean that you’re going to get stabbed, horror movie-style, with a COVID-19 infected needle by a psycho in the checkout line? Probably not. People who don’t wear masks cannot be equated with psychopathic axe murderers; in fact, “psychopath” isn’t even a medical term. “Psychopathy isn‘t an actual diagnosis,” explains Aimee Daramus, a Chicago-based psychotherapist. “It‘s a term used in forensics and criminology.”

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Psychopathy, psychologically speaking, exists on a spectrum associated with certain personality traits such as meanness, antisociality, and impulsivity. A lot of people have these traits in healthy amounts, Daramus explains. Psychologists use the term, “antisocial personality disorder” to describe an individual with an unhealthy preponderance of psychopathic or sociopathic personality traits. This study, then, appears to draw a connection between people’s inclination to oppose social distancing measures and that psychopathy trait of not feeling compassion for other humans.

“Antisocial personality disorder is very rare,” Kelly Donohoe, a Pittsburgh-based psychotherapist tells me. People who have antisocial personality disorder comprise about 1% of the population; in Donohoe’s 20 years of practice with hundreds of patients, she has seen only two cases of antisocial personality disorder. “Many people have a few traits of the disorder such as low-conscientiousness or lack of concern for others,” Donohoe says. Even people on the high end of the spectrum aren’t usually dangerous, but they do lack compassion.

So while we can’t scapegoat people with an antisocial personality disorder — or even those on the spectrum — they may be less likely to adhere to the distancing norms that keep people safe.

Psychologists do agree that people with antisocial traits could be more dangerous during the COVID-19 crisis than people who do not. “They have lower-than-normal ability to feel fear, so appeals to fear won’t move them,” says Daramus, ticking off the reasons we should be aware. “They’re usually thrill-seeking, so the tension won’t be as draining for them, and they’re often indifferent to hurting people or may be excited by the power to hurt people.”

So while we can’t scapegoat people with antisocial personality disorder — or even those on the spectrum — they may be less likely to adhere to the distancing norms that keep people safe. “An implication of 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,” Blagov told PsyPost.

So, ultimately, people with psychopathic traits may be spreading more than their share of COVID-1. And terrifyingly, they may be doing it on purpose. “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.

It’s easy to use this research as horror movie fodder, but that isn’t actually the point. Blagov is clear that her findings are meant to be jumping off points for future research into personality disorder rather than investigations about who is spreading coronavirus.

One important caveat to note: We cannot problematically chalk up irresponsible social behavior to mental illness. “The correlations were often small, and the scientific definitions of traits are not everyday judgments about character,” Blagov told PsyPost. The spread of COVID-19 can be blamed neither on people with mental illness nor on people who are just not that nice. “The results do not mean that viral disease is spread only by irresponsible or inconsiderate people,” she said.

So, no you aren’t paranoid for thinking that the maskless close-talkers at the grocery are a little off. They could be less afraid of this virus as it appears to be receding in many places. But they could also have a little less empathy and compassion than the average citizen.