South Korea may have been held up as a model country in controlling Covid-19 without having to shut down its economy while other countries across the world have had to go into partial or total lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Since the lockdown started, people have probably gone through every imaginable emotion–suffering stress from working from home, losing sleep, or craving human touch. Staying at home for prolonged periods has brought out interesting habits, personality traits, and emotions.
Why individual differences matter in this pandemic
University of Cambridge behavioral scientist Sanna Balsari-Palsule, Ph.D. shared that understanding individual differences has never been more important as economic activities restart and many people emerge from lockdown. She said that public discourse around Covid-19 over the last two months has largely been collectivism. That is, individuals are viewed as a whole to control the spread of the virus. That is why mass cooperation was required in terms of quarantine, hand hygiene, and social distancing.
Yet, after the lockdown, it would be critical to rely on individuals to adhere and maintain preventive measures. By understanding individual differences and how people exhibit variability, it can impact the daily outcomes, like work and health success and their well-being.
Balsari-Palsule, whose research focuses on the dynamics of behavior change and the mechanisms that link psychological traits to a variety of outcomes, believes that the Big Five personality traits are important in explaining people’s behavioral differences in their responses to the pandemic. Extraversion, for instance, is one of the five personality traits in the Big Five personality theory. It shows how social or outgoing a person is. A person who scores high on extraversion is known as the “life of the party” as they are full of energy and enjoy social gatherings of being with people.
Personality differences and Covid-19
Researchers from Universidade São Francisco in Brazil investigated to what extent personality traits are associated with engagement with two coronavirus containment measures: handwashing and social distancing. They found that people who scored high in extraversion were less likely to engage in social distancing in the first month of the coronavirus outbreak. This is not surprising since extraverts have a higher need for reward-seeking tendencies and social stimulation. This is why Balsari-Palsule believes that as the stay-at-home orders relax, the reward may look more palatable for the extraverts. They are also the ones who may find it more challenging to follow the preventive behaviors after the lockdown.
Individual differences and preventive behaviors
On the other hand, the same study from Brazil found that people with higher scores for conscientiousness, the personality trait of being diligent or careful, were more likely to follow the hand hygiene practices as well as the social distancing rules. The conscientiousness personality, which portrays organized and planful tendencies, is likely to show a stronger vigilance towards the safety measures. In another study involving Danish participants, Ingo Zettler from the University of Copenhagen and their team found that people who scored high in Emotionality were more likely to accept personal restrictions to protect other people from coronavirus.
Emotionality is the observable physiological and behavioral component of emotion. They are people who are more prone to empathy, fear, and anxiety.
Aside from preventive behaviors, understanding personality differences will have significant implications in mental health. This is especially important in light of the intensity and range of the psychological effects of quarantine as it becomes difficult to face individuals. Yet, these challenges may be worse for people who are already vulnerable to PTSD, anxiety-based disorders, and depression. Their symptoms are likely to be exacerbated by the continued restrictions and extended lockdowns.
The Pew Research Center surveyed nearly 5,000 people in the US from April 7 to 12 and 66% of the respondents said that their greater concern is that restrictions on public activity will be lifted “too quickly.” About nine in ten US adults (91%) say that they would feel uncomfortable attending a crowded party given the current situation while 77% would not want to eat out at a restaurant yet. Amid the Covid-19 outbreak, 66% are also uncomfortable going to a polling place to vote, 42% feel uncomfortable going out to the grocery store or visiting with a family member or a close friend at their home (38%).
In the same way, those with low levels of self-efficacy, a belief that reflects confidence in the ability to exert control over one’s behavior, social environment, and motivation, may be vulnerable to feeling helpless and are at greater risk of anxiety. The behavioral scientist highlighted that knowing these differences is significant as it can overlay how we should think about interventions.
For instance, we can create tools that will shift one’s external “locus of control” to a healthier one. Locus of control is the degree to which one believes they have control over the outcome of events in their lives as opposed to the external forces. This will also lead to creating steps that will lead to an increase in people’s self-efficacy.
Majorities in the US say that they can continue following the social distancing measures “for as long as necessary,” shared Gallup. In its polling, 68% of Americans can follow the social distancing guidelines for as long as necessary before their physical health suffers or they experience significant financial hardship (54%). However, 48% said they can follow social distancing practices and business and school closures for as long as necessary before their emotional or mental health suffers.
People’s stamina for Covid-19 hardships, by age
Gallup found that younger Americans are the ones with less tolerance for the continued restrictions. Those aged 18 to 44 are more likely than their counterparts to say their mental or emotional health is already suffering from following the social distancing practices. Twenty-six percent of the 18 to 44 age group said they are already suffering emotionally and mentally because of the social distancing practices compared to people who are 45 to 64 years old (9%). Only 5% of those 65 years old and above are already experiencing emotional and mental hardships because of Covid-19.
Having a better understanding of individual differences is an important tool to fight the pandemic, which is riddled with uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.