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Personality and Our Willingness to Wear Masks

How personality and perception relate to compliance with pandemic regulations

No Shoes, No Shirt, No Mask, No Service

We have all seen footage of or heard about fights erupting in stores when a customer adamantly refuses to wear a mask (or reacts to someone who won’t). The resulting pushing, shoving, or worse may seem disproportionate to the situation. From a personality perspective, what types of people are more likely to resist COVID-related restrictions? Researchers have tackled this question.

Image by NickyPe from Pixabay
Source: Image by NickyPe from Pixabay

Personality and Pandemic Precautions

In an article titled “Who complies with the restrictions to reduce the spread of COVID-19?” Marcin Zajenkowski and colleagues investigated what characteristics were associated with compliance with COVID restrictions.[i] Using a sample in Poland, they examined the role of personality traits, such as those that are part of the Big Five and the Dark Triad, as well as individual differences in how people perceived the COVID-19 pandemic, in explaining compliance with governmental restrictions.

They defined Big Five traits as representing “a broad cross-section of personality capturing individual differences in people's social, anxious, organized, creative, and personable nature.” Contemplating how some of these traits might predict compliance with COVID-19 policies, they noted that neuroticism might reflect risk avoidance, which could prompt compliance to promote a sense of safety; that agreeable people are prosocial, and might thus be inclined to comply to protect others; and that conscientious people tend to be organized and neat, which might correspond with compliance to avoid infection.

Zajenkowski et al. also examined the Dark Triad traits of Machiavellianism, characterized by cynicism and manipulation, narcissism, defined as including self-centeredness and entitlement, and psychopathy, defined as including impulsivity as well as callous attitudes.

Perception Over Personality

Regarding the role of individual differences in perception of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zajenkowski et al. found that generally, the way the situation was perceived explained more of the variance in compliance than did the Big Five traits or Dark Triad personality traits. They noted this was consistent with the hypothesis that situations such as the COVID-19 crisis “leave less room for dispositional tendencies in predicting behaviors than situational cues.”

They explain this finding as supporting the “strong situation hypothesis”: that personality traits have a lesser role in predicting behavior in scenarios with strong situational cues. As predicted, they found that participants who viewed the COVID-19 situation as characterized by negativity and duty were more likely to follow the restrictions. They also found that the COVID-19 pandemic might elicit anxiety and tension if it is perceived as a threat, which could prompt compliance. In contrast, they note that people who viewed the situation as “conducive to sex, love, and romance” were less compliant with restrictions. They speculate that perhaps spotting sexual opportunities outweighs concerns with potential health threats or rule-breaking.

Compassion and Compliance

Regarding the potential influence of the Big Five personality traits, Zajenkowski et al. found only agreeableness to be associated with greater compliance. They explain that agreeable people are often compassionate and caring, which is consistent with the reality that COVID-19 related restrictions require people to endure personal inconvenience or costs in order to protect other people, loved ones and strangers alike. Agreeable people, with a generalized disposition towards helping, might be better equipped to make this sacrifice.

In contrast, they noted that there were several aspects of the Dark Triad personality traits associated with noncompliance. They explained that being rivalrous (narcissism for example), having little care for others (psychopathy Factor 1), and Machiavellianism, as expressed in power-seeking or cynicism, may create a dispositional “perfect storm” prompting a combative unwillingness to comply with restrictions. They explain that in this regard, agreeableness and some core aspects of Dark Triad traits might “represent two dispositional extremes that predict opposite outcomes in a salient situation, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Although we cannot determine someone's personality through willingness to comply with pandemic restrictions, we might notice that some people we know have responded (or not) to these new rules as we might expect.


[i] Marcin Zajenkowski, Peter K. Jonason, Maria Leniarska, and Zuzanna Kozakiewicz, Who complies with the restrictions to reduce the spread of COVID-19?: Personality and perceptions of the COVID-19 situation. Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 166, 1 November 2020.

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
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