Over the last two months, public discourse around the pandemic has largely been one of collectivism. In controlling the spread of the virus, individuals have been viewed predominantly as a whole—from appeals to mass cooperation (“Stay home together”) and compliance to measures of social distancing, hand hygiene and quarantine.
However, as we emerge from lockdown and economic activities restart, relying on individuals to maintain and adhere to preventive behaviours is now critical. Within this new context, individual differences take on new significance and are worth exploring.
Until now, differences between individuals have been thus far limited to demographics, with differences analysed across country, age groups and urban and rural divides. Behavioural scientists and psychologists have similarly focused their efforts on understanding collective human behaviour — drawing on theories of group adherence and deviance from social norms, and leveraging these principles to design behaviourally informed interventions and nudges that promote the right habits.
Yet, understanding personality has never been more important.
The role of personality
The study of individual differences is rooted in an understanding of how individuals exhibit variability in key psychological characteristics, and how these impact important daily outcomes such as well-being, health and work success. Among the most examined characteristics are personality traits, and particularly, the Big Five trait dimensions (Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism) that are replicable across countries and cultures.
In the current situation, Big Five traits are particularly relevant in explaining key differences in behavioural responses, from reactions to personal restrictions to the continued uptake of protective behaviours.
Take the example of extraversion. Researchers in Brazil found that individuals with higher scores in extraversion were less likely to engage in social distancing measures in the first month of the outbreak. This finding is unsurprising in light of extraverts' higher need for social stimulation and reward-seeking tendencies. Given this, we may expect that as lockdown rules relax, the rewards for norm-compliance may wear off faster for extraverts than introverts, and without the immediate visible threat of the virus, the reward of breaking rules (e.g. socialising, group activities) may appear much more palatable. In addition, extraverts are likely to have experienced more difficulty with social isolation, and may find it more challenging to adhere to preventive behaviours post-lockdown.
Unlike extraverts, the same study found that individuals high in Conscientiousness were more likely to follow social distancing rules and hand hygiene practices. Conscientiousness, which delineates planful and organised tendencies, is likely to manifest in a stronger vigilance towards protective behaviours. In another study of Danish participants, individuals high in Emotionality — those more prone to anxiety, fear and empathy — were more likely to accept personal restrictions to protect others from the virus.
Beyond preventive behaviours, examining individual differences can also have important implications for the domain of mental health. In light of the range and intensity of psychological effects of lockdown, the difficulties facing individuals are far-reaching. However, these difficulties are compounded for those who are high in Neuroticism. People with high levels of neuroticism are already more vulnerable to depression, anxiety-based disorders, and PTSD, which is likely to be exacerbated by the extended lockdowns and continued restrictions.
Similarly, those with lowered levels of self-efficacy or a more external locus of control, may be particularly vulnerable to experiencing helplessness and are at a greater risk of anxiety. Understanding these differences is important as it can overlay how we think about interventions. For example, how can we develop tools that shift individuals' external locus of control to a healthier internal one where they feel they have agency over their lives? What are the steps that can help increase individuals' self-efficacy?
Whilst many of these studies offer preliminary evidence, they highlight the utility of individual differences as an important explanatory tool in a pandemic that is riddled with ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty. This pandemic may be one of many crises ahead, and our ability to deploy interventions requires a holistic understanding of both the individual and the collective.