The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Some covid-19 rule-breakers could be narcissists, experts say. Here’s how to approach them.

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Susan Whitbourne was shopping recently in her neighborhood Whole Foods in Framingham, Mass., when another patron caught her eye. The man, who was chatting on his cellphone as he meandered around the store, had pulled his face covering down — a violation of Massachusetts’s statewide mask mandate.

Summoning her courage, Whitbourne, a professor emerita of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, approached the unmasked shopper and reminded him of the rules. He replied, “Well, I’m talking on the phone,” she recalled.

Whitbourne believes that “teeny, tiny slice of behavior” may have been a sign of an unwholesome personality trait that could explain some of the resistance to masks in America: narcissism. Several recent studies have similarly concluded that narcissistic behavior may be contributing to noncompliance with public health guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic.

“You can’t just diagnose somebody on the basis of a snap judgment,” Whitbourne said, “but you can see narcissistic qualities.” By appearing to prioritize a phone call over the state mandate, for example, the man in Whole Foods seemed to be sending a message that “I’m above those laws, I’m special, the rules don’t apply to me and I don’t care about other people,” she said.

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According to psychologists, that mind-set is commonly observed in narcissists, who characteristically lack empathy, have high levels of entitlement and grandiosity, and chronically seek validation, admiration and control. Together with Machiavellianism and psychopathy, narcissism makes up one-third of the “Dark Triad,” personality patterns often linked to “a lack of niceness,” said W. Keith Campbell, a psychology professor at the University of Georgia.

“If you’re narcissistic, you’re going to do what you want,” said Campbell, the author of the upcoming book “The New Science of Narcissism.” “If what you want isn’t the same as what the guidelines are, you’re not going to do the guidelines.”

Peer-reviewed research conducted in the United States, Brazil and Poland suggested that people who show signs of Dark Triad or antisocial personality traits are less likely to adhere to measures instituted to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, including mask-wearing and social distancing.

When states first began lifting coronavirus lockdown measures in the summer, tensions around face masks had been mounting since the CDC first recommended them. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

This unwillingness to follow pandemic guidelines, despite the fact that health experts and scientific data support their efficacy, has become a widespread issue in the United States, and reflects its reputation as a society with higher levels of attitudes associated with narcissism, said Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor at California State University at Los Angeles.

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Rhetoric from anti-maskers, who have publicly eschewed face coverings even though there is strong scientific evidence that wearing them can help protect others, “is one of the most stunning examples of lack of empathy you could see,” said Durvasula, the author of “‘Don’t You Know Who I Am?’: How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility.”

Narcissism can also manifest itself as rage, oppositionality and petulance — strong reactions that may be helping to fuel the public mask disputes that have been documented in recent months.

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The experts, however, strongly cautioned against labeling people as narcissists just because they aren’t wearing a mask or are objecting to restrictions.

There are people who may not be able to wear a face covering or adhere to other recommendations because of health conditions or physical or mental disabilities, Durvasula said. And in situations where someone might be “going off the handle,” Campbell said it’s important to remember that this is a stressful period for most of us.

“It’s just a weird time, and people are breaking for different reasons, with narcissism being one but not the only one,” he said.

It’s also a time when “we are much more aware” of people who are not acting in ways that consider others, Durvasala said. “Because this time, rather than maybe just leaving us feeling sad, it may be putting us at risk,” she added.

Taking on people who ignore guidelines, though, is challenging and potentially dangerous, Durvasula said. “We’ve already seen that large-scale retailers around the country are saying, ‘We can’t keep putting our employees in harm’s way and having them enforce mask rules,’ ” she said. “Every time I read those news stories, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, of course they can’t.’ Because unless they gave all of their employees a crash course in narcissism, they just don’t have a chance.”

Two Trader Joe’s customers were asked to put on masks. They attacked employees instead, police said.

While experts recommended prioritizing self-preservation during the pandemic and steering clear of rule breakers, that’s not always a possibility. So, if you find yourself needing to speak up, here are some tips for engaging with narcissists that might help when approaching someone who is ignoring public health laws or guidelines.

Consider your language: This is especially important for public health messaging, said Craig Malkin, a clinical psychologist and lecturer at Harvard Medical School. To encourage change in people who are behaving narcissistically, Malkin recommended using “we” language to emphasize interconnectedness and appealing to that population’s drive to feel special. For example, “You can make the difference between life and death because we’re all in this together.”

“The less significant they feel in all of this, the more they’re going to have to pound their chests and push back against what’s being expected to feel like they matter,” Malkin said. But he noted that there are limits to the effectiveness of language, depending on how disordered a person might be.

Be respectful: Narcissists are impulsive, reactive and very sensitive to threats, Durvasula said. A simple eye roll directed at a narcissist who isn’t wearing a mask or is wearing it improperly “will be enough to spin them into a rage,” she said.

Campbell suggested speaking in a calm, respectful voice and avoiding confrontational comments like, “Your mask is wrong.”

Instead, you should gently remind them of the rules and offer easy ways for them to comply, such as providing a mask, he said. Whitbourne also suggested appealing to a narcissist by getting them a mask that flatters their appearance.

Avoid escalation: It is critical to watch your tone when engaging with a narcissist, Durvasula said. She recommended using a “hostage negotiator voice” and keeping responses minimal. “In an era where we know that this infection is spread by droplets, someone screaming at you, that’s droplet city,” she said.

If the situation starts to get out of hand, Durvasula recommended “gray rocking.”

“Gray rocking literally means what it sounds like — you turn into a gray rock,” she said. “A completely inert, uninteresting, unengaged object.”

Once you do that, you become a “less engaging target for the antagonistic, narcissistic person,” she said.

Understand the power of a group: In general, people may be less likely to break rules or fight back when confronted by more than one person, Campbell said. “It’s just much more chaotic to try to take charge yourself or become the mask police,” he said.

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Groups, he added, need to agree on what the expected behavior is and enforce it to the extent that they can. In a retail setting, for instance, this means that a maskless person should be approached by two employees and a store manager, who form a united front, he said.

Know when to walk away: Many people often fall into the trap of trying to reason with a narcissist, Durvasula said.

“But when somebody’s core belief is that these rules are not for me, I am better than these rules and I deserve special treatment, you are not going to get through to them,” she said. “So don’t waste your time.”

Instead of getting upset because someone isn’t following the rules, Durvasula has a simpler and safer solution: “Just pull your mask on tighter,” she said.