- Compliance with COVID-19 management practices varies greatly among people depending on their personality characteristics.
- People with antisocial personality disorder traits are more likely to resist and ignore COVID-19 containment measures.
- People who take the COVID-19 virus seriously are more likely to be fearful, depressed, and have higher rates of suicidal ideation.
- Because personality traits are highly heritable, people's attitudes towards virus containment measures are likely to be "born and not made."
By Frederick L. Coolidge, PhD and Apeksha Srivastava, M.Tech
Presently, there is neither a medical cure nor a completely effective treatment for the COVID-19 virus. It is now also recognized that achieving herd immunity may be impossible as vaccines are not evolving quickly enough to deal with variants of the virus, and a significant number of people are resistant to getting the vaccine.
There are, however, procedures that are clearly effective in reducing the transmission of the virus. They include covering one’s mouth and nose, frequent handwashing and sanitizing, social distancing, maintaining proper hygiene, isolation of suspected and confirmed cases, closure of workplaces and educational institutions, stay-at-home recommendations, lockdowns, and restrictions on mass gatherings.
However, it is clear that compliance with these COVID-19 management practices varies greatly among people. Some take these safety norms very seriously while others do not. Interestingly, numerous psychological studies now suggest that particular personality characteristics are associated with compliant and non-compliant people. Further, it appears that the psychological repercussions of the knowledge of the virus also vary between these two groups of people.
Resistance to COVID safety practices and personality
A recent study in Brazil suggested that a lack of compliance with the containment measures such as social distancing, hand washing, and mask-wearing was associated with antisocial personality characteristics.
Literally, the term antisocial means “against society,” however, it is officially defined as “a pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others.” This definition comes from the "gold standard" of psychological diagnoses, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) published by the American Psychiatric Association (2013).
The DSM-5 notes that people with a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder often have particular personality traits in common such as being antagonistic and disinhibited. Further, it notes that such people are often manipulative, deceitful, grandiose, callous, irresponsible, impulsive, hostile, and risk-takers.
Indeed, this is exactly what the Brazilian study found: People who were resistant to comply with the containment measures scored higher on measures of manipulativeness, deceitfulness, callousness, irresponsibility, impulsivity, hostility, and risk-taking. They also showed lower levels of empathy. The authors (Miguel et al., 2021) concluded that despite increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Brazil, some people will not comply with behavioral containment measures.
COVID-19 personality types
An interesting article by Lam (2021) informally identified 16 different COVID-19 personality types. They were:
- Deniers, who minimized the threat of the virus and wanted to keep businesses open
- Spreaders, who wanted herd immunity to develop by spreading the virus
- Harmers, who wanted to spread the virus by spitting or coughing on other people
- Invincibles, who are often younger people believing they are immune to the virus and are not afraid of any social interactions
- Rebels, whose chief concern is the suppression of individual freedoms by governments
- Blamers, who are occupied with the countries or people who initially started or spread the virus
- Exploiters, who profit financially from the spread of the virus by phony treatments, or geopolitical groups that benefit from other countries becoming overly infected
- Realists, who respect the science of the virus, comply with containment measures and get vaccinated as soon as possible
- Worriers, who are obsessed with the virus’ dangers and observe containment measures to temper their fears
- Veterans, who comply with containment measures because they have personally experienced the virus or know someone who has or previously experienced other related viruses like SARS or MERS
- Hoarders, who reduce their fears by stocking up on toilet paper and foodstuffs
- Contemplators, who psychologically reflect upon the effects of the virus on daily living, and how the world may be changed by the virus;
- Innovators, who design better containment measures or better treatments
- Supporters, who “cheer on” others in the fight against the virus
- Altruists, who help others who are exceptionally vulnerable to the virus, like older people
- Warriors, who actively combat the virus, like nurses, doctors, and other healthcare workers
Of course, these COVID-19 personality types overlap, and they are not aligned with any current psychological diagnostic system. However, Professor Lam believes that the recognition of such personality types can help with the development of different interventions and communications in order to mitigate the virus’ transmission and reduce excessive psychological fears and worries.
In our recently submitted study (Coolidge & Srivastava), we sampled 146 Indian undergraduate and graduate students from the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar, and we investigated personality differences between those who took COVID-19 as a serious threat and those who did not (the Denier/Minimizer group).
We found that the people who took the virus seriously experienced significantly higher levels of depression, self-doubt, apprehension about the future, irritability, mood instability, nervousness, anxiety, worry, and concern with abandonment by others. They also tended to avoid social contacts and interactions in greater percentages than those who denied or ignored the virus’ threat. However, their perception of the existential threat of the virus made them more distracted in their daily activities and made them more impulsive and more prone to take risks because of their greater frustrations with the mitigation measures. Sadly, their prevalence of suicidal ideation (20%) was nearly double the prevalence in the Denier/Minimizer group.
In summary, these studies strongly suggest that compliance with COVID-19 management practices varies greatly among people based on their inherent personality characteristics. Further, it appears that the psychological repercussions of the knowledge of the virus also vary between people, as we noted the increase in suicidal ideation and risk-taking in those who take the virus seriously. It is provocative to think that people’s attitudes towards the virus are a function of their DNA. Thus, their behaviors may be “born and not made” and can also be reinforced as a function of the environments they select or create.
Nevertheless, gaining an understanding of the association between COVID-19 and particular personality traits might be critical in establishing more effective public-health actions. Thus, it appears that decoding personality can provide direct and indirect solutions to many critical issues including but certainly not limited to healthcare.
Lam, M. E. (2021). United by the global COVID-19 pandemic: Divided by our values and viral identities. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 8, 31.
Miguel, F. K., Machado, G. M., Pianowski, G., & de Francisco Carvalho, L. (2021) Compliance with containment measures to the COVID-19 pandemic over time: Do antisocial traits matter? Personality and Individual Differences, 168, 110346.
Coolidge, F. L., & Srivastava, A. (2021). Personality characteristics associated with attitudes towards the COVID-19 virus. [Manuscript submitted for publication]. Psychology Department, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, & Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar.