The Dark Triad trait of psychopathy and message framing predict risky decision‐making during the COVID‐19 pandemic

Stephen M. Doerfler, Maryam Tajmirriyahi, Amandeep Dhaliwal, Aaron J. Bradetich, William Ickes, Daniel S. Levine
Published Online:
14 Apr 2021

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The effects of framing on risky decision‐making have been studied extensively in research using Kahneman and Tversky's (1981) hypothetical scenario about a contagious Asian disease. The COVID‐19 pandemic offers a unique opportunity to test how message framing affects risky decision‐making when millions of real lives are at stake worldwide. In a sample of US adults (N = 294), we investigated the effects of message framing and personality (Dark Triad traits) in relation to risky decision‐making during the COVID‐19 crisis. We found that both gain‐ and loss‐framing influenced risk choice in response to COVID‐19. People were more risk‐averse in the loss condition of the current study compared to the benchmark established by Tversky and Kahneman (1981). Among the Dark Triad traits, psychopathy emerged as the significant predictor of risk taking, suggesting that people who score high in psychopathy are more likely to gamble with other people's lives during the COVID‐19 crisis. We suggest that both voters and pandemic‐related public awareness campaigns should consider the possibility that decision‐makers with psychopathic tendencies may take greater risks with other people's lives during a pandemic. In addition, the framing of public‐health messages should be tailored to increase the chances of compliance with government restrictions.

© International Union of Psychological Science