- The COVID pandemic is largely rooted in issues of human social behavior.
- This research explored behavioral traits that significantly predict the tendency to become infected with the coronavirus.
- Extraverts and political conservatives are more likely than are introverts and liberals to have become infected with the virus.
The COVID pandemic, which has killed millions across the world, is largely rooted in human social behavior. Through such processes as coughing and related respiratory acts, the virus gets itself replicated from one human body into another. It thrives on close contact between people.
In light of the human behavioral element of COVID, my research team (a subset of The New Paltz Evolutionary Psychology Lab) conducted a study to help us better understand the behavioral factors that underlie the spread of this virus—a virus that has turned all of our worlds upside down in so many ways.
Our study, recently published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, explored various dispositional traits that might ultimately underlie whether people are prone toward getting the virus. The two main variables we focused on were extraversion and political conservatism.
Extraversion and COVID
Extraversion is a continuous trait measure with sociability near its core (see Costa & McCrae, 1985). The idea of this trait being "continuous" essentially means that scores on extraversion vary by degree, with some people being extremely high on this dimension (extraverts), some being extremely low on this dimension (introverts), and most people being somewhere in the middle.
Recent research has found that those who are relatively extraverted are less likely to follow recommended guidelines related to protection from the virus compared to those who are more introverted (see Han et al., 2021).
A straightforward hypothesis related to this issue, then is simply this: Extraverts may well be more likely to actually acquire COVID compared with introverts. Such a result would be consistent with the evolutionary framework of balancing selection (see Nettle, 2006), which suggests that evolutionary benefits of extraversion, such as increased mating opportunities and larger social circles, might be offset by such adverse outcomes as injury and early death. Following this reasoning, perhaps across the human evolutionary experience, extraverts have been more likely to be "selected out" during intermittent pandemics, which have long been a part of human history.
An additional evolutionary perspective as to why and how extraversion might relate to COVID infection proclivity pertains the behavioral-system hijacking hypothesis (see Reiber et al., 2010). This idea, which is admittedly beyond the scope of our data, suggests that the coronavirus, which has known effects on the nervous system, may actually hijack behavior and temporarily make people relatively sociable so as to increase its spread across an increased number of human hosts.
Political Orientation and COVID
Given the tendency for nearly any issue to become politicized in modern times, it is unfortunate—but not surprising—that the COVID pandemic has become highly politicized. And it makes sense that this fact has led to differentiated behaviors related to the pandemic across the political spectrum.
Gollwitzer et al. (2020) found that people who live in relatively conservative areas (based on voting patterns) have been less likely to follow social-distancing guidelines relative to those living in areas where people are more likely to vote for liberal political candidates.
In light of this basic reasoning, we predicted that people who self-identify as conservative would be more likely to wind up becoming infected with the virus relative to those who self-identify as liberal.
Our Study in a Nutshell: Extraverts and Conservatives are More Likely to Get COVID
Our study included over 200 adults from both the US and the UK. We targeted individuals who are 40 or older, as younger people are less likely to be symptomatic. In our final sample, about 1/4 of participants reported having received, at some point, a positive COVID test or they reported having tested as positive for the anti-bodies, implying that they'd had the disease at some point.
Participants completed a simple survey that included a measure of various facets of extraversion, including the sociability facet, which was the particular sub-dimension of extraversion that was of interest to us. Participants also completed a political orientation index reporting the degree to which they self-identified as politically liberal or conservative.
Our results were relatively straightforward:
1. There was no effect for country of origin: The results came out the same in participants regardless of whether they were from the US or the UK.
2. After controlling for a broad array of other variables, the sociability facet of extraversion emerged as a significant predictor of whether someone had become infected with the coronavirus: Social extraverts were significantly more likely than were others to have had COVID.
3. Across both the US and UK samples, those who self-identified as politically conservative were more likely to have tested positive for COVID relative to their self-described liberal counterparts.
The COVID pandemic, which is only now beginning to wane (thanks to the extraordinary efforts of scientists across the world who have developed effective vaccines at breakneck speed), has killed millions across the globe and it has wreaked havoc in every single corner of the globe.
Issues of human behavior have been at the core of the spread of the virus from the outset. The research described here explores the behavioral science of COVID. Specifically, we found that those who have been infected with COVID are more likely to (a) score as relatively sociable on indices of extraversion and (b) identify as relatively politically conservative.
With our research (see Rolon, Geher, Link, & Mackiel, 2021), we hope to shed light on behavioral factors that bear on the spread of the virus. We hope that better understanding these factors that underlie the pandemic can help us develop methods for slowing the spread of the virus (and perhaps potential similar viruses) into the future.
This research was conducted by Brunel University's Vania Rolon (first author and primary investigator) along with myself, Jennifer Link, and Alexander Mackiel of the State University of New York at New Paltz. Jen, Alex, and I contributed equally to this research.
Costa and McCrae, 1985
P.T. Costa, R.R. McCrae (1985). The NEO Personality Inventory manual. Psychological Assessment Resources, Odessa, FL.
Gollwitzer, C. Martel, W.J. Brady, et al. (2020). Partisan differences in physical distancing are linked to health outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic Nature Human Behavior, 4 (11) (2020), pp. 1186-1197, 10.1038/s41562-020-00977-7
Han et al., (2021). Investigating how individual differences influence responses to the COVID-19 crisis: The role of maladaptive and five-factor personality traits. Personality and Individual Differences, 176 (2021), Article 110786, 10.1016/j.paid.2021.110786
A. Makhanova, M.A. Shepherd (2020). Behavioral immune system linked to responses to the threat of COVID-19. Personality and Individual Differences, 167, Article 110221, 10.1016/j.paid.2020.110221
D. Nettle. (2006). The evolution of personality variation in humans and other animals American Psychologist, 61, pp. 622-631.
Reiber, C., E.C. Shattuck, S. Fiore, V. David, P. van Goozen, and J. Moore. 2010. Change in human social behavior in response to a common vaccine. Annals of Epidemiology 20(10): 729-733. DOI: 10.1016/j.annepidem.2010.06.014