The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changed the way we live. Plans were put on hold, offices moved into homes, favorite meeting places were shut down, and friends and family were often off limits. Even when able to leave home, people's public behavior was altered dramatically by having to wear masks, frequent hand sanitizing, and keeping six feet from other people.

Research showed that adhering to social distancing was effective in reducing the spread of the virus. Yet,  it quickly became apparent that people varied in the extent to which they adopted this health goal. Although everyone surely got the message that it was vital to change their typical social behavior, there were wide variations between people in how much they believed in the guidelines and how well they adhered to them.

As personality and motivation researchers, we felt it would be important to examine the connection between personality traits (neuroticism, extroversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness) and the new need to socially distance themselves from others. By chance, we had launched a study in September 2019, 6 months before the onset of the pandemic, where we had a sample of university students complete 6 surveys over the course of an academic year. Our original intent was to examine the role of personality in personal goal pursuit, but with the onset of the pandemic, we decided to assess the extent to which young adults' personalities were related to internalizing, and successfully enacting the social distancing behaviors that were recommended to combat the spread of COVID-19. The study involved assessing all participants in terms of their standing on the Big 5 traits at the first time point. We thus had a clear indication of whether participants were low, high, or in the middle on the trait dimensions of neuroticism, extroversion, openness to experience, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. During the first wave of the pandemic, we asked participants to rate the extent to which they have been following the government's recommendation to socially distance so we could then explore motivational and personality factors that would be predictive of greater adherence to the social distancing guidelines.  

One of the first traits we suspected may predispose someone to view social distancing as important and meaningful is agreeableness. Agreeable individuals are thought to be warm, friendly, and caring of others. When you think of the purpose of social distancing, one of the main goals is to protect those in our communities who are most at risk—older individuals and those with pre-existing conditions. Therefore, we thought agreeableness would likely facilitate this. Indeed, in our research, we found evidence that individuals who are higher on agreeableness tended to value caring for their community more, reported having fully internalized the goal of social distancing, and were more likely to social distance in general than those who were less agreeable.

Conscientiousness, defined as being efficient, organized, dutiful, and responsible, has reliably been associated with successful goal pursuit and it seemed like a trait that would be plausibly associated with social distancing. Adhering to public health guidelines requires people to be careful, making sure that they are consistent in washing their hands, wearing masks, keeping a six-foot distance from others in public spaces, and so forth. These are all behaviors for which being a highly conscientious person would likely be quite helpful! Our study confirmed that conscientious individuals were more likely to social distance. The other traits we looked at were not associated with social distancing.

Thus, our results revealed that individuals who are more agreeable and conscientious (often thought to reflect social maturity in young adults) engaged in significantly more social distancing. This was probably because such behavior came more naturally to them and they tended to highly value caring for their community and thus saw social distancing as an important and meaningful thing to do.

For Further Reading

Moore, A. M., Holding, A.C., Levine, S., Powers, T., & Koestner, R. (2022). Agreeableness and conscientiousness promote successful adaptation to the Covid-19 pandemic through effective internalization of public health guidelines. Motivation and Emotion.

Amanda Marie Moore is a PhD student in the Clinical Psychology program at McGill University. She studies human motivation and personality psychology from the Self-Determination theory perspective.

Richard Koestner is a professor in the Department of Psychology at McGill University. He is an expert in human motivation and personality psychology and has been a researcher in the field for over 25 years.