Research and scientific studies with rigorous control standards are critical to helping humanity learn more about SARS-CoV-2, including how best to fight it. But while reports on studies have become relatively common, many readers probably don't realize that the methods underpinning the studies they read about aren't all equally credible.
For example, the other day we happened upon a study by a team of researchers led by a social psychology PhD at Whitman College, a small liberal arts school in Washington State that purported to suggest that individuals' personality traits impact whether they will accept, or resist, public-health recommendations.
Using an obviously unscientific premise, the study sought to explore any connection between the so-called "Dark Triad" traits which purportedly (according to accepted theory) indicate an individuals' level of psychopathy. Surprisingly, we found, the study had been peer reviewed, and was set to be published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.
The data was largely collected in late March, making it mostly irrelevant to the current mask debate which is roiling the country.
Ultimately, the researchers designed five fake "public health messages" and found that people with higher scores on the "dark triad" traits responded better when the message was framed in terms of personal safety. But none of the "correlations" seemed particularly high. But even more galling, to us, was the methodology. Respondents were faced with 5 different scenarios for "Public Health Messages", each written to appeal to a certain personality type. The study was carried on via Amazon's Mechanical Turk service, which limits the pool to the typical Mechanical Turk workers, not exactly a reliable cross-section of humanity.
As inspiration, the team cited several studies purporting to prove a correlation between personality traits like psychopathy and recklessness and incidences of STDs like HIV. The parallel between this, and a connection between psychopathy and mask-wearing, seemed rather tenuous to us. Even the researchers conceded that it would be "far better" to test individual behavior, rather than relying on responses to five imaginary scenarios dreamed up by the research team..
At one point, the researchers wrote that "distinctly antagonistic persons" may have acted contrary to public health appeals. Just a few sentences later, the researchers added that they didn't mean to imply that only "irresponsible and inconsiderate" people spread the virus. Indeed, research so far suggest that this is the furthest thing from the truth, with the exception of some "super-spreader" events (like the worshipper in Daegu who was blamed for setting off South Korea's outbreak). As a WHO scientist recently pointed out, there's evidence to suggest that most people infected are family members or otherwise live in close proximity to the infected, and that asymptomatic infection is actually fairly rare. Though another WHO scientist clarified the next day that asymptomatic people can still spread the virus.
All of this doesn't matter. Because at the end of the day, some Business Insider reporter might eventually find this study in the same archive where we found it and - on a slow news day - it could readily lead to a story entitled "Refusal To Wear Mask Linked With Higher Rates Of Narcissism, Psychopathy."
Read the full study below: