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  • Writer's picturePam King Sams

University of Cambridge study shows how your personality affects your Covid safety decisions.

Researchers from Cambridge and the US analysed the behaviours and personalities of more than 101,000 people worldwide during the first wave of COVID-19.

The study on how personality affects the likelihood that individuals will stay home during the pandemic, shows that extroverts are more likely to break lockdown rules, Researchers also found that people who were less neurotic and less open to new experiences were more likely to venture outside of their homes when rules were lax.

The latter finding surprised the team — who had assumed that openminded people, who often take more risks, would be more likely to dismiss stay-at-home guidance.

However, openness has also been associated with more accurate risk perception and a less self-centred viewpoint, which the team said could explain this trend.

'People who scored low on two personality traits — openness to experience and neuroticism — were less likely to shelter at home in the absence of stringent government measures,' said University of Cambridge psychologist Friedrich Götz.

However, he added, 'that tendency went away when more restrictive government policies were implemented.'

'Initially, this was a bit astounding, as open individuals have traditionally been shown to be prone to risk taking, willing to deviate from cultural norms and likely to seek out and approach novel and unfamiliar things.'

'All of which would arguably put them at greater risk to ignore sheltering-in-place recommendations,' he commented.

However, the researchers explained, openness traits are also related to making accurate risk perceptions, universalism and identification with other humans.

'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,' Mr Götz said.

In their study, Mr Götz and colleagues analysed data from a global survey, undertaken as the pandemic first took hold, that probed how people behaved — as well as how they perceived the behaviour of others — in response to COVID-19.

This included the responses of more than 101,000 participants from across 55 different countries — with the data gathered between March 20–April 5 2020.

Participants were also asked about their demographics — and were tasked with answering a series of personality questions.

This allowed the researchers to grade each respondent based on the so-called 'Big Five' personality traits — which include agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism and openness.

Alongside analysing individual behaviours and personalities, the team also looked at the stringency of country-level COVID-19 policies — such as, for example, measures to close schools and workplaces or cancel public events to halt the virus' spread.

The team found that — together — the extent of government restrictions and personality traits allowed them to predict who would shelter at home.

For example, in countries or areas where restrictions were tighter, the team found that people were more likely to remain in their homes.

They also found that extroverts were much less likely to follow stay-at-home guidance — while people who scored higher on agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness were more likely to act cautiously and shelter.

However, although respondents who exhibited less neurotic and open traits were more likely to flaunt the rules under lenient restriction policies, this changed when the local government tightened rules.

Another explanation for the findings could be rooted in politics, the researchers commented, noting that people with high openness scores tend to be more liberal.

Previous studies have shown that there a strong partisan factor in levels of compliance with social distancing measures, with liberals much more likely to follow public health rules than conservatives — especially in the US.

'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,' said paper author and organisational behaviour expert Jon Jachimowicz of Harvard University.

'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.'

'Learning what characterises such people can be informative in multiple ways, from helping to identify potential super-spreaders to tailoring public health messages to people's personalities in order to increase compliance,' Dr Jachimowicz added.

As national governments relax and tighten rules as the pandemic evolves and subsequent waves of infection occur, understanding how personality affects compliance with restrictions will be key for policy makers, the researchers said.

The full findings of the study were published in the journal American Psychologist.

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