During the COVID-19 pandemic, health organizations around the world have faced the challenge of persuading the public to take antipandemic measures like social distancing or wearing masks. Fear appeals have often been used, but the varying success of these messages highlights how crucial their exact content and presentation can be.
Take, for instance, the outcome direction of those fear appeals. A self-directed appeal can emphasize the risks of hazardous behavior to the individual who engages in it, while an other-directed appeal can emphasize the risks of that behavior to the people around them. An appeal against drunk driving, for example, might depict a drunk driver being injured in a crash, or it might depict their passengers being injured instead. The effectiveness of each is not universal, and audiences with different personalities might have different responses. From this perspective I was fascinated to read this study by Yidan Huang, Shu Yang, and JiaMin Dai, which investigated the effect of outcome direction on antipandemic intention in people with different levels of Machiavellianism – one of the “dark triad” of personality traits alongside narcissism and psychopathy. Machiavellians are pragmatic, results-oriented, and tend to act in their own interest, so the authors hypothesized that participants who were more Machiavellian would be more persuaded by a self-directed outcome scenario than by an other-directed one.
The authors showed participants from Wuhan, China, either a self-directed or other-directed fear appeal about COVID-19. “It’s better to wear a mask than a ventilator; it’s better to lie down at home than in the ICU,” read the former. “If you don’t wear a mask, you are utterly devoid of conscience about your own parents,” read the latter. After, participants reported their intention to engage in behaviors to prevent the spread of the disease, and were assessed for Machiavellian traits.
As expected, Machiavellians did respond with stronger antipandemic intention after viewing a self-directed message. I found it interesting, however, that there was no difference in antipandemic intention between participants with high and low Machiavellianism who viewed an other-directed outcome. Can any decision we make be completely free of self-interest? In a pandemic, if the people around you are at risk of the disease, then you yourself are too, and the authors note that Machiavellians might therefore recognize that protecting those around them also benefits themselves.
Lewis Fletcher | Copyeditor
Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal