With the widespread adoption of social distancing around the world as public health experts seek ways to mitigate COVID-19’s exponential rise, it’s clear that some people fare better than others at the requirement to stay away from others.
If you’re an outgoing person who craves parties or other large gatherings, or has a job requiring that you are in a position of public prominence, it will be tough for you to be confined in your home for the foreseeable future. Indeed, some of the notable cases of world leaders testing positive for the virus are the very people who spend their lives literally touching large numbers of followers through handshakes if not hugs.
The idea that personality predicts who can withstand social distancing is reinforced by what residents of Seattle are seeing as an introvert advantage. #SeattleFreeze became a trending term on Twitter following the news that social distancing is working in this hard-hit city. Various posts, most of them at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek, include observations such as “people avoid each other anyways, don't socialize as much, don't talk to neighbors, go to bed early” (@Geopolog), and “Finally, my native Seattle skills are recognized and lauded! You're welcome” (@HoffmanJess).
The tweets followed a New York Times article published on March 29 noting, “The demographics of those workplaces, with tens of thousands of tech workers who were able to telecommute, may have given the region an early edge in keeping people separated. Perhaps the city’s social norms helped, too, as local residents have long had a reputation for keeping to themselves or within circles of longtime friends — a phenomenon often explained to newcomers as the Seattle Freeze.”
Although this news analysis seems to provide a compelling explanation, what guidance is there from psychological research that personality combined with social norms can play a role in the virus mitigation? Given the recency of the COVID-19 outbreak, it's too soon to have direct evidence to back up those claims. However, it's possible to gain insights from a 2019 study led by Shigehoro Oishi of the University of Virginia on the personality trait predictors of a measure of life fulfillment known as "the psychologically rich life."
Based on previous work, Oishi et al. note that extraverts do seem to score higher on measures of happiness than introverts, as do individuals high in two of the other Five Factor Model traits (agreeableness and conscientiousness). However, to be happy, people also need to feel economically secure and able to eat and sleep well, not to mention have a certain amount of luck.
Happiness, however, is distinct from “a meaningful life,” which includes a sense of “purpose, coherence, and significance” (p. 258). Unlike happiness, people can live this type of inwardly-directed life regardless of their objective circumstances. In the words of the authors, “Thus, the lack of luck and fortune does not preclude individuals living in difficult conditions from leading a good life via leading a meaningful life“ (p. 258). Although extraversion is positively related to people’s sense of meaning in life, this relationship is weaker than is the case for happiness.
Yet, from the vantage point of the psychologically rich life, there's more to finding gratification in life than either happiness or meaning, according to the study's authors. Rather than simply wanting to be happy, or even finding purpose in life, people who experience the psychologically rich life enhance their daily experiences with new and challenging opportunities. These opportunities aren’t just fun, or even personally fulfilling, but also allow individuals to see the world from a different perspective.
You might have encountered such experiences if you decided to add a new musician’s work to your usual playlist. It’s great to focus on the old and familiar, as these pieces of music can give you comfort. However, something new and different may enhance your mood in ways you didn’t realize were possible. To do this, you have to be willing to stretch your mind, or have a certain degree of another Five Factor trait, that of openness to experience.
To measure the extent to which personality traits would predict the psychologically rich life, the University of Virginia-led team developed a 17-item scale (later reduced to 12) that they tested across samples ranging from undergraduates in the U.S. to online non-student Americans, and finally to a sample of adults from India. Some sample items from this scale included the following (rated on a scale of 1 to 7, strongly disagree to strongly agree):
- My life has been psychologically rich.
- I have had a lot of interesting experiences.
- My life consists of rich, intense moments.
- On my deathbed, I am likely to say ‘‘I had an interesting life.”
- My life would make a good novel or movie.
You can see from these items that they tap not into your current levels of well-being but into the longer-term view you have that your life has been anything but dull. As the authors predicted, people with higher scores on this measure had higher scores on openness to experience as well as higher extraversion and lower neuroticism.
Based on these findings, you might therefore wonder how it could be that introverts could be better adapted to the sacrifices necessitated by social distancing. However, Oishi et al. note that the psychologically rich life isn’t something your personality either allows you to have or not. Instead, in their words, “individuals who believe they are leading a psychologically rich life may, over time, begin to view themselves as open to new experiences, especially if they frequently observe themselves engaged in such activities” (p. 267). If new experiences are forced upon you, in other words, you may find your personality shifting in response.
Returning now to the question of why the Seattle Freeze may help explain the city’s ability to follow social distancing guidelines, it would appear that introverts could hold an advantage if they’re also high in openness to experience, which will allow them to see the new normal as an opportunity to grow.
Rather than fighting the regulations and sneaking ways to get together with people, whether at parties or parks, individuals who don’t mind being on their own can use the time to enrich their mental life in other ways. The trait of introversion may be a start, but it's not the only factor that predicts who’s able to withstand enforced social distancing.
Finally, the good news from the Oishi et al. study is that even if you’re not the type to “freeze,” your personality can mold and change in response to life’s changing pace.
Oishi, S., Choi, H., Buttrick, N., Heintzelman, S. J., Kushlev, K., Westgate, E. C., Tucker, J., Ebersole, C. R., Axt, J., Gilbert, E., Ng, B. W., & Besser, L. L. (2019). The psychologically rich life questionnaire. Journal of Research in Personality, 81, 257–270. doi: 10.1016/j.jrp.2019.06.010