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Personality and Sheltering-in-Place During the Pandemic

Personality traits affect willingness to stay at home during the COVI-19 crisis.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, people in countries around the world were asked to stay at home or “shelter-in-place” to help prevent the spread of the disease. The effectiveness of sheltering-in-place policies depends heavily on people’s willingness to cooperate. Whether people are willing to stay at home may depend partly on external factors, such as penalties for non-compliance, but also on their personal characteristics and inclinations.

A recent study (Götz et al., 2020) examined individual differences in sheltering-in-place using data collected in late March and early April 2020 from 101,005 participants in 55 countries. Their findings showed that sheltering-in-place appeared to be influenced not only by government policies in each country but also by individuals' personality traits. The findings shed light on what factors influence behavior. Specifically, they put to the test the popular but unproven “strong situation hypothesis” that claims that personality has a weaker influence on behavior when there are clear social norms about how people should behave. Additionally, they have implications for evolutionary theories that certain personality traits influence disease-prevention behavior.

Logan Weaving/Unsplash
Source: Logan Weaving/Unsplash

In the study, participants were asked to rate how much they had stayed at home during the past week, as a measure of sheltering-in-place. Additionally, they rated themselves on the well-known Big Five personality of openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Furthermore, they assessed the stringency of government policies about sheltering-in-place that were in force in each participants’ country at the time they took the survey. Specifically, the level of stringency was calculated based on policies including some or all of school closing, workplace closing, cancellation of public events, suspension of public transport, implementation of public information campaign, restrictions on internal movement, and international travel controls.

As expected, stringency of government policies had significant effects on sheltering-in-place, that is, people generally were more likely to stay at home when stricter policies were enforced. Additionally, there were significant effects for each of the five personality traits. Specifically, people with higher levels of openness to experience, neuroticism, agreeableness, and conscientiousness were more likely to shelter-in-place, while people with higher extraversion were less likely to do so.

Of all these factors, governmental stringency had the largest overall effect, closely followed by openness to experience and extraversion, with neuroticism, agreeableness, and conscientiousness having somewhat smaller effects. In addition to the individual effects of each factor, there were interactive effects between each of openness to experience and neuroticism and governmental stringency. Specifically, at high levels of governmental stringency, neuroticism no longer had an effect, so that those with high and those with low levels of neuroticism were equally likely to stay at home. Additionally, at high levels of governmental stringency, the effect of openness to experience became somewhat weaker, so that there was somewhat less difference in sheltering-in-place between those high versus low in openness to experience, although the effect still remained statistically significant.

Most of these results were expected, although the effects of openness to experience were harder to predict. For example, people higher in conscientiousness tend to be health-conscious, rule-abiding, and respectful of authority, so they would be more willing to stay at home than less conscientious people, who tend to be more impulsive, risk-taking, and less inclined to follow rules.

Similarly, those who are high in neuroticism tend to be anxious and sensitive to anything perceived as a threat to their safety, and therefore more fearful of becoming sick than calmer, less worry-prone individuals.

People high in agreeableness tend to be compassionate and concerned with others’ well-being, as well as more conforming for the sake of maintaining social harmony, so they would be more willing to stay at home out of consideration for public welfare compared to more disagreeable individuals who are more selfish and inconsiderate.

On the other hand, highly extraverted people tend to have large social networks, get bored easily and place a high priority on having fun, so they would naturally find staying at home for long periods unappealing compared to more reserved and introverted individuals.

Caspar David Friedrich/Public domain photo on Wikimedia Commons
Being an introvert has its advantages in times like these
Source: Caspar David Friedrich/Public domain photo on Wikimedia Commons

For openness to experience, the results are interesting: On the one hand, highly open people tend to have greater willingness to deviate from cultural norms and to be less cautious about taking risks in novel and unfamiliar situations, which might cause them to engage in behavior that increases their risk of exposure to pathogens. In fact, previous research (Schaller & Murray, 2008) found that in regions of the world that have historically had high rates of infectious diseases, people tend to be lower in extraversion and openness to experience than in regions where disease has been less prevalent. The authors argued that this is a behavioral adaptation to disease because people high in extraversion may have an increased risk of disease exposure because of their heightened sociability, whereas people high in openness to experience may have an increased risk because of their willingness to violate cultural taboos that exist to protect people from disease exposure. In relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, the lower willingness of highly extraverted people to stay at home seems consistent with this theory, but the opposite effect of openness to experience does not.

Götz et al. consider a number of reasons why people high in openness to experience might be more willing to shelter-in-place. Götz et al. argued that openness to experience is related to more accurate risk perceptions. This was based on an interesting study of HIV risk perception (Trobst et al., 2000) that found that in sexually active people who appeared to be aware of the risk factors for contracting HIV, those who were low in openness to experience denied that there was any chance, even one-in-a-million, that they would ever be infected with HIV, even though they admitted to engaging in risky sexual behavior. Trobst et al. suggested that this might be because people low in openness to experience might be restricted in their consideration of information about risk due to their rigid thinking styles. Additionally, openness to experience is associated with the ability to vividly imagine scenarios, which might allow a person to mentally simulate the consequences of risky behavior. People low in openness may be unable to imagine that they might actually contract a disease.

Götz et al. also consider that differences in political ideology might play a role, as high openness to experience tends to be associated with more liberal and less conservative political views. In the US at least, the pandemic has become highly polarized along political party lines (Hart et al., 2020), and Republicans have been found to be less willing to practice social distancing than Democrats (Allcott et al., 2020; Painter & Qiu, 2020). On the other hand, it is worth noting that political conservatism also tends to be associated with high conscientiousness (Fatke, 2017) and with pathogen avoidance behavior (Tybur et al., 2016), which might lead one to expect conservatives to be more willing to shelter-in-place. The research on political polarization related to COVID-19 cited by Götz et al. was all based in the US, so whether it reflects a more general pattern that applies in other countries is not yet clear.

Another possibility is that higher openness to experience is related to greater willingness to shelter-in-place because it is a personality trait that is uniquely related to higher intelligence (DeYoung, 2011). For this reason, people higher in this trait may find it easier to understand the nature of the risks involved and the importance of social isolation at this time. Additionally, it could be that openness to experience has different effects on disease-related behavior in modern times than it did in the evolutionary or even more recent past when people did not understand how disease was transmitted.

Lastly, the findings by Götz et al. help shed light on the strong situation hypothesis, the claim that personality matters most for understanding how people behave only in “weak” situations in which people are free to act how they wish but is of little importance in “strong” situations in which external environmental factors impose constraints on behavior in the form of clear social norms that dictate what people are supposed to do. This idea has been highly pervasive in personality and social psychology, despite there being little research testing whether or not it is true (Cooper & Withey, 2009).

Stringent government policies directing people to shelter-in-place could be considered a strong situation. Götz et al. found that such policies did completely reduce the effect of neuroticism and partially reduced the effect of openness to experience on sheltering-in-place. However, these policies had no effect on reducing the influence of extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Hence, the strong situation of stringent government policies only weakened effects of some personality traits but not others. Furthermore, personality effects were robust even when controlling for a range of demographic factors, such as age, gender, income, and health, as well as actual and perceived COVID-19 infection and death rates. Therefore, it would be more accurate to say that personality continues to have an important influence on behavior even in strong situations such as the current pandemic.


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