To help defeat – or at least contain – COVID-19, people all over the world have been told to stay at home this year, to lower transmission of the pervasive pathogen that has so drastically altered the course of 2020.
Depending on the severity of outbreaks, sometimes being advised to ‘shelter in place’ is just that: advice. At other times, it’s a strictly enforced order. Regardless of the stringency, not everybody finds it equally easy to go along with the guidance, and a new study identifies the personality types most likely to obey or disobey the directives.
An international team of psychologists analysed responses to a worldwide survey assessing people’s behaviours and perceptions of others’ behaviours during March and April this year – a period in which the COVID-19 pandemic steadily accelerated in many countries.
Looking at responses from over 101,000 participants in 55 countries, the researchers also considered the stringency of governmental policy towards sheltering in place – that is, how strict stay-at-home measures were, encompassing policies such as school and workplace closures, cancellation of public events, suspension of public transport, and restrictions on domestic movement and international travel, among others.
“Not surprisingly, in areas where government policies were more stringent, people were more likely to shelter in place,” says lead researcher and psychology PhD candidate Friedrich Götz from the University of Cambridge.
That’s to be expected, but it’s not all the survey showed. The respondents also answered a number of questions designed to gauge their personality type, based around what are known as the Big Five personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
The team discovered that these personality factors independently helped to predict whether people stayed at home or not, with higher scores on openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and neuroticism all predicting higher rates of sheltering in place.
Extraverts, on the other hand, were significantly less likely to stay at home while various lockdown measures were in place, the researchers found.
“Extraverts are gregarious and sociable, and they found it especially hard to stay cooped up at home and not see other people,” Götz says.
“They were most likely to break lockdown rules, and stayed at home less than people of any other personality type during March and April.”
The observed effects were statistically significant, but the researchers point out that they also were generally small – although when you consider the hundreds of millions of people worldwide under shelter-in-place guidance, even small deviations from public policy could have serious ramifications in terms of virus containment and spread.
While extraverts were more resistant to staying at home, other personality types were more likely to embrace the restrictions, the results suggest.
“Highly neurotic people had decided early on that this virus wasn’t something to mess with, and they were staying at home,” Götz says.
Similarly, people who scored high on openness had pro-sheltering instincts.
“Individuals scoring higher on openness are generally more willing to seek out new information and are faster to adapt to changing situations,” the authors write in their paper.
“In the specific context of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, the global-mindedness associated with openness to experience may further lead individuals to become more aware of the virus’ risk and adopt protective behaviours earlier as they follow the outbreaks in other countries.”
In contrast, people who scored low on openness and neuroticism displayed a tendency to not stay at home during shutdown measures, although the researchers found this tendency lessened when government measures became more restrictive.
In effect, the team suggests that openness and neuroticism were particularly relevant factors at the outset of the pandemic – spurring individuals to act cautiously in the face of the virus – but this effect “decreased in importance once governmental intervention transformed the adoption of such behaviours from largely individual decisions to all-encompassing social norms”.
While self-reported surveys like this have numerous limitations to them, the researchers contend that findings like this have valuable takeaways for governments and health authorities, who can learn to better understand and anticipate what factors drive people to engage or disengage with messaging around crises like COVID-19.
“Government regulations do very much influence the behaviour of the population at large, but we need to recognise that not all of the people will follow all of the rules,” Götz says.
“Extraverts pose a particular challenge during the pandemic, because they are least likely to stay at home when governments advise it.”
The findings are reported in American Psychologist.