You can listen to the audio version of this article.
Over the course of 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak developed quite quickly across the world, with the World Health Organization declaring the outbreak a pandemic on the 11th of March 2020. Many countries faced widespread lockdowns and people were asked to stay at home and not engage with family and friends who did not live in the household. Since the pandemic began, there has been a wide range of research developed focussing upon how COVID-19 can have links to our daily lives, both in terms of physical and psychological links.
I have conducted personality research in the past and now teaches areas of personality; my recent area of reading has focussed upon whether personality may link to (or predict) how people have behaved during the pandemic. I gave a personality lecture last year that provided details on how personality can link to different health behaviours, such as how and why people may engage in negative health behaviours even though they are aware of the negative consequences. In some ways, a pandemic (or the behaviours associated with pandemic restrictions) could also be seen as negative or risky.
While reading papers upon personality and the pandemic, it became apparent that yes, personality could link to how people have behaved during the pandemic, but personality itself is not the only factor here.
One of the first papers I came across suggested that personality constructs could link to a person’s pandemic behaviour. When this paper discussed pandemic behaviour, it defined the behaviour in terms of whether people were actively ‘sheltering-in-place’. For example, whether people would actively stay at home or in the building they were living in and not socialise physically with the outside world. The research involved 55 countries around the world, and while different countries had different government policies in place (which was acknowledged), results did show that personality was linked to pandemic behaviour when staying at home.
People who demonstrated high levels of the openness personality trait were very likely to stay at home. An open person is someone who is more likely to seek new experiences and be more curious about the current situation, therefore they may be seen to be more welcoming of pandemic changes and sheltering-in-place. People who were extraverted, however, so those people who are really outgoing and preferred contact with people, did not engage with sheltering-in-place as much. Reasons for this could be needing contact with other people or finding it difficult to stay home alone if this is something that the person is not used to.
One of the things that we do need to understand when looking at the relationship between personality and pandemic behaviour is the possibility that there may be other factors that could contribute to such pandemic behaviour, of staying or not staying at home. When the pandemic first developed, people were unsure of what was going to happen, and this uncertainty alongside long periods of isolation (or self-isolation) caused a rise in mental health issues among all generations. Due to the lack of mental health services available when services had to move online or close quickly, support may not have been offered or sought, and this could have contributed to a change in pandemic behaviour.
When I discussed earlier about an extraverted person not adhering to staying at home, factors such as mental health issues could be an influencing factor here. If someone who is extraverted struggled with staying at home, and as a result needed extra support for mental health issues, this support-needing could be a contributing factor to not staying at home rather than the extraversion personality factor itself.
Research has also shown that being outside in nature can improve mental health and this again could be another reason (other than personality) as to why some people did not actively engage with staying at home during the pandemic. A person may be at the point where they feel as though they need to be outside of the house and out in the ‘real world’ to be able to feel more comfortable.
So, in answer to the question I asked at the beginning – yes personality can in some ways predict pandemic behaviour, such as staying at home, however, it is not the only contributing factor. Every person has been involved in different situations since the beginning of the pandemic and everyone will have different reasons for levels of adherence to sheltering-in-place, staying at home and other aspects of pandemic behaviour.
Laura Jenkins, PhD is a teaching associate in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University.