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How the Big Five Personality Traits Predicted COVID Shelter-in-Place Compliance

big five personality traits

 Bailey Mariner, Verywell

Key Takeaways

  • A recent study found that personality was linked to early COVID-19 shelter-in-place compliance.
  • Extraversion was the only trait negatively related to sheltering in place.
  • No matter what your personality is like, it's important to follow COVID-19 safety behaviors.

Personality traits, including openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and neuroticism, were positively associated with shelter in place compliance, while extraversion (or extroversion) was not, an October 2020 study published in American Psychologist found. The study also looked at how government policies interacted with personality to shape shelter-in-place behaviors.

“Personality is always going to be the most powerful thing in anything that is as polarizing as the pandemic became, so people are going to react based on their personality, perspective, and life experiences,” said Tracy Crossley, a Los Angeles-based behavioral relationship expert.

How the Study Was Conducted

Using social media, national media, academic and education networks, and professional organizations, researchers surveyed 101,005 participants from 55 countries to “assess participants’ own behaviors and perceptions of others’ behaviors during the COVID-19 crisis as the pandemic unfolded.”

The goal was to determine how psychological processes like personality, as well as government policies, shaped shelter-in-place compliance at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The survey opened on March 20 and closed on April 5—in that time span, the number of countries with 1000 plus confirmed cases, workplace closures, and internal mobility restrictions rose from 47% to 85%.

“The timeframe of our data collection thus captures large variations in policy stringency, offering a unique opportunity to disentangle the role of personality versus structural forces in the prediction of consequential real-world behavior in a large-scale field study during the global COVID-19 pandemic,” the study noted.

Participants had access to the survey in over 69 languages. Just over half of the participants were female, averaged 39 years old, and had 16 years of education behind them. They provided income information and health status, and also estimated how many people were infected with COVID-19 in their country when they took the survey, and how many people they thought would become infected within the month.

Researchers used three main measurements to assess personality, policy stringency, and shelter-in-place compliance:

  1. Participants took a personality assessment called the Ten Item Personality Inventory, which is a short test using the big 5 personality traits.
  2. The COVID-19 Government Response Stringency Index was used to assign scores to each policy measure about whether it was absent, targeted, or general. It asks about seven key policies: school closings, workplace closings, public events cancellations, public transportation suspension, public information campaigns, internal movement restrictions, and International travel controls.
  3. Using a scale of 0 to 100, participants rated to what extent they remained at home in the week prior.

There were a few limitations to this study. Due to the global scale of the research, it wasn’t feasible to observe behaviors in-person. Self-reporting may lead to distorted responses. The personality measure was also limited to a short 10-item scale, and the study was limited to person-situation interactions, which doesn’t account for gene-environment interactions or person-environment fit.

To understand the results of the study, let’s first take a look at what is characteristic of each personality trait.

What Are the Big 5 Personality Traits?

Often remembered using the acronym OCEAN (and sometimes CANOE), there are five main personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Previous research suggests links between how our personality might influence our tendencies to shelter-in-place.

Each trait is defined by certain characteristics, all of which add up to create the unique personality each person has. While the traits have a high extreme and low extreme, realistically, most people fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

Openness

People who have high openness are typically open-minded, curious people who are willing to try new things and listen to ideas other than their own. On the other hand, those with low openness tend to be a bit more fearful, close-minded, and perhaps more conservative in their perspectives, Crossley noted.

Higher curiosity toward new things could mean less cautiousness, suggesting that those high in openness might be “more likely to put themselves at elevated risk for contracting infectious diseases and pathogens,” researchers wrote. They are also more willing to stray from social norms, which could include protective measures such as mask-wearing and sheltering-in-place.

On the flip side, these people might also have more accurate risk perceptions, leading them to adopt suggested health protections.

Conscientiousness

Folks on the high end of the conscientiousness spectrum prefer familiarity and organization. They like to plan their lives, and are committed for the long term—they aren’t necessarily in a hurry.

People on the opposite end of the spectrum are less disciplined and organized; to them, immediate gratification may trump long-term goals.

Per the study, “Conscientiousness is associated with higher adherence to medical advice, fewer risky health behaviors, as well as greater compliance with norms, rules, and civic duties."

Extraversion

Someone who is extraverted thrives in social situations, is usually more outgoing, and makes friends easily. They “draw energy” from interactions, Crossley said.

People with low extraversion often referred to as introverts, find being around a lot of people to be exhausting and prefer more time alone. They don’t care to be the center of attention and are sometimes described as quieter, but may be more outgoing when there is familiarity.

Tracy Crossley, Behavioral Relationship Expert

Extraverts, on the other hand, are on the struggle bus. They thrive on the energy of others. Being separated from their social network in person can prove to be challenging and would definitely be an issue when it comes to following the rules.

— Tracy Crossley, Behavioral Relationship Expert

In general, extraversion is linked to less aversion to germs and more risky health behaviors.

“Introverts [and people with] low extraversion have it made during this pandemic,” Crossley said. “They do not need to make excuses to stay home or cancel plans. They get to…spend time doing what they want without societal expectations, so following guidelines to shelter in place is not a problem.”

She continued: “Extraverts, on the other hand, are on the struggle bus. They thrive on the energy of others. Being separated from their social network in person can prove to be challenging and would definitely be an issue when it comes to following the rules.”

Agreeableness

Highly agreeable people are usually friendly, warm, and easy to get along with. They are go-with-the-flow and optimistic and “believe this too shall pass,” Crossley said. People who are low in this trait might lack empathy, manipulate others to get their way, be argumentative, and overall be “wrapped up their own words and their own opinions of others.”

Since people high on agreeableness typically follow social norms, they are more likely to comply with healthy practices and do their part to help everyone.

“The people who are low on agreeableness probably have several arguments as to why the guidelines are wrong or bad, since they may feel the guidelines interfere with their personal freedoms. They do not want someone telling them what to do,” Crossley affirmed.

Neuroticism

A person who is high in neuroticism tends to be fearful, worry excessively, and freak out about little things. They may think that if something doesn’t happen to them, it will happen to a loved one. They may feel depressed, lonely, and think that no one else understands them.

Someone with low neuroticism is usually more emotionally stable, less anxious, and even-tempered. They don’t worry too much, “which can be good or bad…they may put themselves in an at-risk situation because they are not worried,” Crossley explained.

Prior research suggests that “although neuroticism is generally associated with poor physical and mental health, people who score higher on Neuroticism tend to be more fearful of danger and disease and have been shown to engage in more thorough hygienic and germ avoidance behavior.”

What Did the Study Find?

The study found that personality did predict sheltering-in-place compliance. All traits were positively related to sheltering in place except extraversion, which was negatively related. 

“These [extraverted] people need attention and will seek it,” Crossley said. “They will seek others and may take unnecessary risks to do it. They fear the depression they may encounter if they are away from others. If they have family or friends on lockdown with them it is a bit easier, but they need new experiences so it will be hard for them to keep a distance and not go hit up activities where they are close to others.”

There was also a positive relationship between policy stringency and sheltering in place. While there was little effect of conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness, researchers found that openness and neuroticism had stronger effects on sheltering-in-place when the government had imposed less strict conditions and weaker effects when there were stricter guidelines in place.

“The defining characteristics of openness and neuroticism may suggest that individuals scoring higher on these traits may have started sheltering-in-place before it was mandated by governmental policy.

Put differently, there appear to be good reasons to assume that openness and neuroticism may have been relevant in the very beginning of the pandemic but decreased in importance once governmental intervention transformed the adoption of such behaviors from largely individual decisions to all-encompassing social norms,” as written in the study.

Crossley added that openness to experience is also related to higher self-responsibility and adventurousness, so these people might have seen less government control “as though they could be trusted to make a good decision for themselves. In being told what to do, they have to conform. Being open, yes, you could conform, but only if you agree and are seen as a person capable of making good decisions for yourself.”

Overall, policy stringency and personality had similar or greater effects on compliance than age, gender, income, education, personal health, and perceived/anticipated COVID-19 severity. While the differences were particularly small, when added up they can really matter.

According to the study, “Given the worldwide scale of the COVID-19 pandemic and the contagiousness of the virus, small changes in people’s probability to shelter-in-place can substantially reduce the spread of COVID-19 both within and across countries."

What This Means For You

Even though personality may influence behavior, it is no excuse not to practice health safety. Continue to wear a mask, shelter in place, or otherwise engage in preventative COVID-19 measures.

“Being on whatever spectrum you are in each of the traits is an opportunity to look at why there is such a cost to following a policy to protect your health versus not doing that, rather than it being politicized and feeling you will be trapped in this stringency forever,” Crossley said. “This too shall pass.”

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