Conscientious People Are Dealing Better With the Pandemic
Conscientiousness has helped people plan more and cope better during COVID-19.
Posted December 29, 2020
If ever there was a time to unleash your inner Hermione Granger, that time is now. Hermione is a poster child for conscientiousness, a personality trait that involves being responsible, self-controlled, hard-working, proactive, goal-oriented, orderly, and organized. This family of traits is incredibly beneficial in just about every domain in life, and some of the biggest and most robust benefits of high conscientiousness are related to better physical and mental health and more adaptive, proactive health behaviors. It’s no surprise, then, that conscientiousness has been linked to greater adherence to public health guidelines such as following stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and practicing good hygiene.
Conscientious people may protecting their physical health and reducing their risk of disease through following the rules, but how are they handling the pandemic in a psychological sense? Does this tendency to be proactive, controlled, and hard-working reduce the risk of developing the anxiety and depression that have emerged for so many during this year?
The answer seems to be yes, across a variety of domains.
Mental Health, Stress, and Coping Strategies
Several studies have examined the associations of different personality traits with mental health, stress, and coping during the pandemic. One found that conscientious people have lower levels of general health anxiety and COVID-19-specific health anxiety, leading to a reduction in new depression and anxiety symptoms among conscientious individuals.
Another showed that people who are conscientious felt less stress during the pandemic, and specifically had less change in stress levels from before March 2020. They found that the reason for this reduction in stress was that conscientious people felt that they could more effectively deal with the challenges of living in a pandemic, and this sense of efficacy was related to lower stress. In this study, conscientious people appeared to view the current situation as a challenge to be overcome rather than a threat to be defended against. Conscientious people do not just feel more equipped to deal with COVID; they actually are better prepared. One study found that conscientious people take more precautions against contracting the disease than people lower in conscientiousness. Conversely, the study found that having lower conscientiousness corresponds to having a greater number of concerns about COVID-19, potentially leading to greater stress.
Conscientious people have been shown to use a variety of adaptive coping mechanisms during the pandemic. In particular, they tended to use problem-solving coping strategies rather than making one’s self temporarily feel better by engaging in maladaptive or avoidant behaviors, while people lower in conscientiousness were more likely to view the present and future negatively. Consistent with these results, a different study found that people who are lower in conscientiousness predicted that pandemic restrictions would last longer than did people high in conscientiousness, reflecting a pessimistic view of the future. Exercise is another key way that many people cope with stress, and during the months of the pandemic, many people began exercising more often. One study found that during the pandemic, conscientiousness predicted a sharper increase in physical activity compared to other personality traits.
Being conscientious has been linked to experiencing more positive emotions and less negative ones, especially less guilt and shame. Presumably, this is because conscientious people do conscientious things, and thus have positive consequences and avoid negative ones. In terms of avoiding guilt, one study found that in a hypothetical scenario in which participants imagined having been exposed to COVID and anticipated how they would react, people higher in conscientiousness reported that they would engage in more behaviors aimed at protecting others, helping them avoid the guilt or shame of potentially infecting others.
Further, a study in Germany found that during the pandemic, conscientious people experienced greater well-being and life satisfaction, and experienced more positive emotions than negative ones. Although this study did not examine the specific reason conscientious people seemed to be having good emotional experiences during the pandemic, this research is consistent with previous studies showing that in general, conscientious people tend to have higher life satisfaction.
While not being able to have social events for nearly a year now has been hard on everyone (especially extroverts), and being with the same people all day every day has the potential to strain relationships, conscientious people seem to be making the best of the situation. One study found that conscientious people had lower in-person social interaction, meaning that they were abiding by the suggestion to stay home, but they increased their online social interaction during the pandemic. This increase is both compared to less conscientious peers and participants’ own pre-pandemic online interaction. This may help to buffer the loneliness many have experienced over the last several months.
Good for Conscientious People, But I'm Not One of Them
This is all great news if you're naturally pretty conscientious. But what if you're not? In the last decade, research has begun to look at intentional personality change, and has found that you can, indeed, change your personality! Several studies have specifically focused on how to increase conscientiousness, since there are so many benefits to having high levels of the trait. Now may be too busy a time to embark on a personal journey, but there is hope for becoming more conscientious!