These Personality Traits Predict COVID-19 Compliance

New research explores which personalities are most likely to follow the rules.

Posted Oct 29, 2020

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Governments can either ask people to follow the rules or they can force them to do so.

New research published in American Psychologist suggests that some personalities are easier to ask than others. A team of psychologists led by Friedrich Gotz of the University of Cambridge found that people who rate high on the traits of openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and neuroticism were more likely to follow the shelter-in-place directives than those who are lower on these traits. In fact, people high on the trait of openness were especially likely to do so.

“Individuals scoring higher on openness are generally more willing to seek out new information and are faster to adapt to changing situations,” write the scientists. “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’s risk and adopt protective behaviors earlier as they follow the outbreaks in other countries.”

Conscientiousness was also associated with following COVID-19 compliance measures, but to a lesser extent than openness was. Why? The researchers speculate that while conscientious people tend to follow the rules, they also have a high need for agency and routine. They state, “Conscientious people are more industrious, dutiful, and self-disciplined, which may make them more likely to continue leaving their home in order to go to work and follow other aspects of their routine, including exercise.”

Agreeable people were also more likely to follow the shelter-in-place directives, possibly because they tend to be more compassionate, empathetic, and conformist.

Finally, neurotic individuals showed a higher likelihood of following the shelter-in-place directives, probably out of self-protection. The researchers write, “Evidence suggests that neurotic people are more likely to attend to and worry about COVID-19-related information, thus having a greater likelihood to perceive COVID-19 as a severe threat, and may consequently change their behavior in response to relevant policies earlier than less neurotic people.”

The researchers found that people who were more extraverted were more likely to break the rules.

“The central facet of extraversion is sociability, which manifests itself in heightened mobility and larger social networks,” say the researchers. “Because more stringent government policies are more likely to deny extraverted people the behavioral freedom that matters so highly to them, extraverted individuals may be less likely to comply with policy interventions.”

To come to these conclusions, the researchers analyzed data from the “Measuring Worldwide COVID-19 Attitudes and Beliefs” project—a collaborative research project designed to track COVID-19 attitudes in more than 160 countries around the world. For this particular study, the scientists analyzed surveys from 101,005 individuals in 55 countries between March 20th and April 5th, 2020.

The researchers also looked for other variables that might explain compliance with the shelter-in-place orders. They found that individuals living in countries that adopted more stringent COVID-19 policies (for instance, closing workplaces, schools, and canceling public events, etc.) were more likely to follow shelter-in-place directives. In fact, government stringency was the strongest predictor of sheltering-in-place. Age, education level, gender, and current health status also predicted shelter-in-place compliance.

The authors write, “We demonstrate how individual personality and policy stringency jointly and independently determine whether or not someone will shelter-in-place. Our findings suggest that as governments provisionally relax sheltering-in-place restrictions, some individuals will continue to engage in social distancing behaviors more than others.” 

In the long run, the researchers hope that developing a more nuanced understanding of how different personalities respond to government mandates could help governments craft more effective messages to encourage socially responsible behavior during times of crisis.


Götz, F. M., Gvirtz, A., Galinsky, A. D., & Jachimowicz, J. M. (2020). How personality and policy predict pandemic behavior: Understanding sheltering-in-place in 55 countries at the onset of COVID-19. American Psychologist.