Study: Personality plays a role in who complies with pandemic restrictions

By Janice Wood
January 12th, 2021

A new study finds that personality traits affect who is most likely to shelter in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Looking at the five big personality traits, the researchers found that people who scored low on two of them – openness to experience and neuroticism – were less likely to shelter at home in the absence of stringent government policies.

However, that tendency went away when more restrictive government policies were implemented, according to Friedrich Götz, a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge and lead author of the study.

“We also found that more agreeable (i.e., cooperative, compliant, sympathetic), conscientious (i.e., responsible, reliable, practical), and neurotic (i.e., tense, anxious, emotionally unstable) people were more likely to shelter in place,” he elaborated.

“Likewise, we observed that more extraverted (i.e., outgoing, energetic, sociable) individuals were less likely to shelter in place.”

“Somewhat surprisingly, we also found that open individuals (i.e., curious, imaginative, unconventional) were more likely to shelter in place,” he continued. “Initially, this was a bit astounding, as open individuals have traditionally been shown to be prone to risk taking, willing to deviate from cultural norms, and likely to seek out and approach novel and unfamiliar things – all of which would arguably put them at greater risk to ignore sheltering in place recommendations and have a higher likelihood of contracting the disease.”

“However, at the same time, openness is also related to accurate risk perceptions, universalism, and humankind identification,” he continued. “In the digitalized world in which the current pandemic occurred, these qualities may have led open individuals to follow the COVID-19 outbreak in other countries, realize its severity, and act accordingly.”

“Moreover, openness is also robustly related to liberal political attitudes. At least in the United States – the country with the second-highest number of participants in our sample – compliance with social distancing behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be strongly linked to partisanship, with liberals being much more likely to comply than conservatives.”

“Taken together, the results reaffirm the power of personality as a central driver of behavior, a force that is not simply eclipsed by governmental policy,” said co-author Jon Jachimowicz, Ph. D, of Harvard University. “Still, stringent governmental policies were able to decrease the influence of two personality traits, demonstrating how macro-level forces can diminish the influence of certain micro-level factors.”

Because personality plays such a crucial role as governments continue to relax and reinstate rules in reaction to changes in the spread of disease, it is important to understand why some people flout the rules more than others, according to Jachimowicz.

This understanding can help identify potential super-spreaders, as well as aid in tailoring public health messages to people’s personalities in order to increase compliance, the researchers noted.

For the study, which was published by the American Psychological Association, the researchers used data from the “Measuring Worldwide COVID-19 Attitudes and Beliefs” project, a global survey conducted by a consortium of 14 researchers at universities around the world.

“Thanks to dozens of volunteers who helped translate the survey, the study was available in 68 languages and more than 110,000 participants from 175 countries participated in the study between March 20 and April 5,” Götz reported.

For their study, the researchers included participants from every country that had at least 200 participants, resulting in 101,005 individuals from 55 countries, he added.

The researchers then included data from the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Stringency Index, which assigns scores based on seven policy measures: School closings, workplace closings, cancellation of public events, suspension of public transport, implementation of public information campaigns, restrictions on internal movement, and international travel controls.

“The good news is governmental restriction generally appears to be quite effective in getting people to stay at home—at least it was during the first wave of the pandemic,” Götz said. “However, personality plays a crucial role here and both in relaxing and reinstating tight government rules it is important to consider that because of their psychological characteristics, some individuals will go out more than others.”

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