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How Personality and Policy Affect Pandemic Behavior

What determines whether people actually shelter at home during the pandemic?

  • Government policies and personality traits affect how likely someone is to shelter-in-place during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to research.
  • People are more likely to stay home when more restrictive policies are in place.
  • People who are high in agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness are more likely to shelter-in-place, while extraverts are less likely to stay home.
  • Individual strategies tailored to people's personalities may make it easier for people to stay home and follow guidelines.

What affects our actions: Our biological makeup and personality or our environment and the limits placed on our decisions? In this interview, Friedrich Götz sheds light on the impact of governmental restriction and individual personality on people's sheltering-in-place behavior during COVID-19.

Friedrich Götz, used with permission
Source: Friedrich Götz, used with permission

Friedrich M. Götz, Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, is an incoming assistant professor in personality and social psychology at the University of British Columbia, specializing in personality research and geographical psychology. He recently moved to Vancouver in the middle of the pandemic and just finished assembling all-new IKEA furniture, as well as received a job offer at UBC. He is currently guest-editing a special issue on intra-national variation in personality in Personality Science.

Jamie Aten: How did you first get interested in this topic?

Friedrich Götz: When the global pandemic started, like many other scientists my colleagues and I were struck by the drastic, fast-paced developments around us and quickly started searching for ways in which we could use our own skills to foster a better understanding of what was happening in the world and how people responded to the situation. At the same time, we wanted to make sure that our study would make a meaningful contribution and be firmly grounded in our area of expertise, so as to inform public knowledge, rather than just writing a Covid-19 paper for the sake of writing one. To us, one of the most important questions at the time of our study, (i.e., during the early, accelerating stage of the first wave of the pandemic in late March and early April 2020), was the following: What determines whether people stay at home, that is whether or not they engage in what is most likely the single most effective behavior to curb the spread of the virus?

JA: What was the focus of your study?

FG: We wanted to shed light on the impact of governmental restriction and individual personality on people’s sheltering-in-place behavior during the early, accelerating stage of the first wave of Covid-19.

Luckily, we were in the very privileged situation to have a large-scale, global dataset that allowed us to address this empirically: In mid-March 2020, we had launched a worldwide online study to learn more about people’s thoughts, feelings and actions during the pandemic. Thanks to dozens of volunteers who helped translate the survey, the study was available in 68 languages and allowed us to analyse data of 101,005 individuals from 55 countries, who reported their individual personality (measured through the Big Five, that is Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Neuroticism and Openness), country of residence and sheltering-in-place behavior. We then combined these large-scale data individuals with country-specific data from the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker, which allowed us to determine, for each individual, how many restrictions they had faced in their respective country at the time when they took the survey.

JA: What did you discover in your study?

FG: We discovered three interesting findings. First, as expected, we found a direct effect of policy stringency: More restrictive policies were significantly associated with more sheltering-in-place.

Second, we found direct effects of individual personality: 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. We also observed that more extraverted (i.e., outgoing, energetic, sociable) individuals were less likely to shelter-in-place. In each of these cases, the observed relationships align with the conceptual definitions of the respective personality traits and are rather intuitive. At first glance somewhat surprisingly, we also found that open individuals (i.e., curious, imaginative, unconventional) were more likely to shelter-in-place – and I will elaborate on that later.

Third, we found interaction effects between national policy stringency and individual personality: For neuroticism and openness, the effect of personality on sheltering-in-place got smaller as policy stringency increased. In other words, individual differences in these personality traits mattered more under less restrictive conditions (e.g. when governments only put out non-binding recommendations) and their influence on behavior diminished under more restrictive conditions (e.g. when governments enforced strict lockdowns). For the other three traits, that is agreeableness, conscientiousness and extraversion there were no such interactions and the effect of personality on sheltering-in-place behavior was independent of the level of governmental restriction.

JA: Is there anything that surprised you in your findings, or that you weren't fully expecting?

FG: As mentioned above, we were initially a bit surprised to see that more open individuals (i.e., curious, imaginative, unconventional) were more likely to shelter-in-place. Traditionally open people have 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 orders 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. Thus, in the digitalised 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 – which would have been especially relevant during the early days of the pandemic when our study took place. 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.

JA: How might readers apply what you found to their lives during Covid-19?

FG: 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. 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 find it more difficult to endure social isolation and to stay at home and are thus at greater risk to violate rules and go out more than others. It can be helpful and relieving to understand and acknowledge that. If you are an extroverted person, chances are you will be more vulnerable to social isolation. At the same time, as Covid-19 can only be beaten through collective efforts, it is still crucial that we stay strong and behave responsibly and in keeping with current regulations at any point. To maintain compliance there is likely no one-size-fits-all solution. Rather, individually, we can work out ways that help us to get through this challenging time – that cater to who we are, or in other words that are aligned with our personality. For extraverted people, digital communication may not fully replace real-world contact but it can be a start. For example, I am a big extravert and used that in putting together my personal strategy for dealing with the situation: I schedule Zoom calls with my family and play online card games with friends.

JA: How can readers use what you found to help others amidst this pandemic?

FG: A similar approach might be helpful when it comes to struggling friends – understand who they are, where they are coming from and what it is that makes compliance hard for them. Then develop tailored, individual strategies that make it easier for them individually to follow the guidelines.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?

FG: After Covid-19 temporarily shifted my research focus, I am now continuing with my original research program at the intersection of personality and geography. Currently, I am using big data and machine learning approaches to look at how regional differences in personality across the United States and other countries are related to regional variation in diverse political, economic, social and health outcomes, such as voting behavior, entrepreneurship rates, happiness and life expectancy. In related work, my colleagues and I are also exploring how environmental, historical and sociocultural influences are shaping geographical differences in psychological traits within countries.


Götz, F. M., Gvirtz, A., Galinsky, A. D., & Jachimowicz, J. M. (2021). How personality and policy predict pandemic behavior: Understanding sheltering-in-place in 55 countries at the onset of COVID-19. American Psychologist, 76(1), 39-49.

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