Lockdown: Scientists looked at personality traits to understand why some defy the rules

  • A new study shows why some people are more likely than others to shelter at home during the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • This was based on survey responses from more than 100 000 people in 55 countries.
  • The researchers found that certain personality types were more likely to comply with strict government policies during lockdown.

People with certain common personality traits are less likely to remain at home when government policies are less restrictive, a global survey done during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has found.

The study researchers investigated the so-called Big Five personality traits: conscientiousness, neuroticism, agreeableness, extraversion and openness and its association with complying with lockdown measures.

"The pandemic led us to revisit one of psychology's most fundamental and most basic questions in a high-stakes context: What determines human behaviour?" the authors wrote.

Their findings were published by the American Psychological Association.

Surprising findings

For their study, the research team used data from the "Measuring Worldwide Covid-19 Attitudes and Beliefs" project – a global survey that aimed to assess people's behaviours and perceptions of others' behaviours during the pandemic.

The team analysed responses from more than 101 000 participants in 55 countries.

The researchers also assessed each country's national policy stringency. In order to do this, they relied on the Covid-19 Government Response Stringency Index, which assigns stringency scores based on seven policy measures: school closure, workplace closure, cancellation of public events, suspension of public transport, implementation of public information campaigns, restrictions on internal movement and international travel controls.

Overall, they found that in areas where government policies were more stringent, people were more likely to remain at home.

Personality traits and complying with lockdown measures

People who scored low on two personality traits – openness to experience and neuroticism – were found to be less likely to stay at home in the absence of stringent government measures, the researchers wrote. However, they added that that tendency was reduced when more restrictive government policies were implemented.

They commented that their findings were astounding, considering open individuals have traditionally been shown to be prone to risk-taking, as well as willing to deviate from cultural norms, among other things – "all of which would arguably put them at greater risk to ignore sheltering-in-place recommendations".

"However, at the same time, openness is also related to accurate risk perceptions, universalism and humankind identification.

"Thus, in the digitalised world in which the current pandemic occurred, these qualities may have led open individuals to follow the Covid-19 outbreak in other countries, realise its severity and act accordingly," they said.

The importance of understanding personality types

Another interesting finding was that irrespective of the stringency of government policy measures, personality traits were associated with shelter-in-place behaviour. For example, participants who scored high on extraversion (indicating how outgoing and social a person is) were significantly less likely to remain at home.

On the other hand, the other four personality traits were linked to a higher likelihood to remain at home, regardless of how strict government policies were.

"Taken together, the results reaffirm the power of personality as a central driver of behaviour, a force that is not simply eclipsed by governmental policy," the authors said.

"Still, stringent governmental policies were able to decrease the influence of two personality traits, demonstrating how macro-level forces can diminish the influence of certain micro-level factors."

The team also explained that, since the Covid-19 pandemic is ongoing and because personality plays such a critical role, it is important to understand why some people defy the rules more than others.

If we take the time to learn what characterises such people, it can be informative in several ways, they concluded, such as tailoring public health messages to people's personalities in order to increase compliance.

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