Despite more of the population staying at home as government policies on COVID-19 become stricter, a study has found that a person’s personality influences how likely they are to stay at home during the pandemic - and cannot be entirely overridden.

Extroverts...were most likely to break lockdown rules, and stayed at home less than people of any other personality type during March and April

Friedrich Götz

A team of psychology researchers from Cambridge, Columbia and Harvard Universities surveyed over 101,000 people in 55 countries to find out whether they were staying at home because of coronavirus between late March and early April 2020. The results are published today in the journal American Psychologist.

The researchers found that extroverts are least likely to follow official guidance to stay at home. The team suggest that tailoring public health messages towards the more extroverted in society could encourage greater overall compliance in populations and help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“Extroverts are gregarious and sociable, and they found it especially hard to stay cooped up at home and not see other people. They were most likely to break lockdown rules, and stayed at home less than people of any other personality type during March and April,” said Friedrich Götz, a PhD researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology, and first author of the report.

Late March and early April 2020 coincided with the early, accelerating stage of the COVID-19 pandemic. This was also when government policies on staying at home varied between countries and were changing rapidly over time. Halting the spread of coronavirus relied on people following official guidance. 

The survey explored the five key traits commonly used by psychologists to characterise personality: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extroversion, neuroticism, and openness. Agreeable people tend to be more compliant and trusting, and conscientious ones are diligent and law-abiding. People scoring highly for these personality traits tend to stay at home when advised to do so.

People who scored as highly neurotic, and those with very open-minded personalities decided to stay at home more even before lockdowns were put into place - they were already concerned about catching coronavirus. The researchers think that as restrictions on movements lift, these groups are more likely to maintain social distancing than other personality types.

“Highly neurotic people had decided early on that this virus wasn’t something to mess with, and they were staying at home,” said Götz.

“Open-minded people tend to be very well-connected and interested in the wider world, so we think they realised the potential impact of coronavirus earlier than others and acted accordingly,” added Andrés Gvirtz, a PhD researcher in Cambridge’s Department of Psychology and second author of the study.

He added: “Watching TV reports of the COVID-19 situation in Italy for instance, which was ahead of the UK in terms of the impact of the virus, was informing the behaviour of open-minded people at the beginning of the pandemic.” 

As governments tightened lockdown rules in late March and early April, a greater number of people started following them, regardless of their personality. The study recorded high compliance by this time, with over 80% of people surveyed across the world reporting they were staying at home.

Survey participants’ personalities were scored on the ‘strength’ of each of the five key personality traits on a seven point scale. A single point change in a person’s tendency towards any of the five traits was found to alter their likelihood of staying at home by around 1%. The researchers stress that even this small percentage has important consequences, given the global scale of the pandemic and the contagiousness of coronavirus.

The researchers suggest that public health messages could be tailored towards extroverts, to encourage greater compliance with lockdown rules in the population as a whole. They suggest that such messages could try to convey an understanding of how hard it is to stay at home - particularly for people who really enjoy being with their friends and family - and point out that the guidance is in place to protect those people.  

“Government regulations do very much influence the behaviour of the population at large,” said Götz, “but we need to recognise that not all of the people will follow all of the rules. Extroverts pose a particular challenge during the pandemic, because they are least likely to stay at home when governments advise it.” 

Governments around the world have tried to prevent the spread of coronavirus by encouraging or enforcing social distancing behaviours, with periods of lockdown in which people are asked not to leave home except for specific purposes. 

This research was funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (part of UK Research and Innovation), the Cambridge Trust and Peterhouse Cambridge.  

Götz, F.M. et al: ‘How Personality and Policy Predict Pandemic Behaviour: Understanding Sheltering-in-Place in 55 Countries at the Onset of COVID-19.’ American Psychologist, 2020. DOI: 10.1037/amp0000740


How you can support Cambridge’s COVID-19 research



Creative Commons License
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.