According to new research, the fear and uncertainty characterizing the coronavirus pandemic may lead certain personalities to be more likely to follow safety guidelines. The study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, found that the tendency to feel like a victim and an inclination toward mental rigidity were both associated with greater adherence to safety measures.
The literature has long demonstrated the influence of personality on health-related behaviors. In the context of a global pandemic whose outcome depends on the cooperative behavior of citizens, understanding these personality factors is important.
“As the COVID-19 spread worldwide, everyone (researchers, laypeople, people of god, conspiracy theorists) tried to make sense of the situation and give their two cents about what should be done and how should people be prompted to obey health guidelines. As social scientists, we wondered what the part of people’s personality and perceptions in determining their COVID-related behaviors (increased cleanliness, following health guidelines) was,” said study author Yossi Maaravi, the Vice Dean of the Adelson School of Entrepreneurship at The Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and director of the Innovation & Entrepreneurship lab.
Maaravi and his team were interested in exploring how fear and uncertainty can motivate certain health-related behaviors. They proposed two psychological traits that are linked to heightened COVID-19 fear and that might promote adherence to related safety measures — victimhood and mental rigidity. The researchers further speculated that self-efficacy moderates the impact of these traits, so that people with greater self-efficacy will be more likely to respond to their fears by adhering to safety measures.
To explore this, a questionnaire was distributed among 354 Israelis on March 22 and 23, 2020 — a few days after Israel introduced emergency measures in response to the coronavirus. The study participants responded to two measures assessing their adherence to safety regulations.
Respondents also completed a scale assessing victimhood, a personality trait that refers to the tendency to perceive oneself as a victim across a variety of situations. Participants further completed a measure of mental rigidity, a cognitive style defined by a low tolerance for uncertainty and a preference for “simplified, one-sided information.” Participants additionally completed a measure of global self-efficacy and COVID-19 fear. Fear of COVID-19 was assessed with five questions including, “I am very worried about being infected or infecting others that are close to me” and “I am afraid of corona disease.”
The results showed that both mental rigidity and victimhood were related to greater adherence to coronavirus safety measures. However, when COVID-19 fear and its interaction with global self-efficacy were included in the model, these effects were no longer significant. This suggests that mental rigidity and trait victimhood were associated with greater adherence to guidelines through their associations with heightened fear of COVID-19.
Furthermore, participants’ level of self-efficacy played a role. For respondents who were low in self-efficacy, fear of the coronavirus was linked to improved adherence to safety measures. For those high in self-efficacy, fear of COVID-19 still predicted adherence to guidelines but the effect size was substantially reduced. As the authors explain, global self-efficacy includes a person’s perception of how capable they are of handling a stressful, uncertain situation like the pandemic. It follows that a person’s level of self-efficacy would impact how strongly their fear of the pandemic influences their adherence to related guidelines.
The authors observe that while victimhood is typically presented as a negative trait that impedes interpersonal interactions, their study suggests a positive side to the trait. To the extent that victimhood facilitates adherence to health measures, the trait offers a positive benefit to the individual and the community.
“Although it is uncomfortable, fear is useful as it guides us to become more careful, in general, and specifically in times of pandemic. We also may try to increase adherence to health guidelines in our immediate vicinity, not via fearmongering but by increasing people’s self-efficacy (peoples’ perception that they can obtain their goals),” Maaravi told PsyPost.
“By supporting and enhancing people’s feeling that they have the power to follow guidelines and protect themselves, we can increase their adherence to health guidelines and make our environment a little safer.”
Maaravi and his team say that their study offers insights when it comes to public health messaging aimed at increasing adherence to safety measures. The results highlight the importance of personalizing such campaigns to appeal to different personality types, given that the same messaging does not work for everyone. But the study has some limitations.
“The paper examined the effects of personality traits on fear and adherence to health guidelines. However, we did not investigate why personality traits (such as trait victimhood) are associated with increased fear or the most efficient messages to induce adherence among people with various personalities,” Maaravi said.
The study, “Fighting Coronavirus One Personality at a Time: Need for Structure, Trait Victimhood, and Adherence to COVID-19 Health Guidelines“, was authored by Yossi Maaravi, Boaz Hameiri, and Tamar Gur.