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Personality & Pandemics

The lockdown in our house isn’t pretty. I’m sat in the guest room on a bean-bag with the drying racks behind me; feeling pleased with myself if I change from pyjamas to a tracksuit. I follow the rules and don’t go out but nor do I bother doing too much else. My husband, on the other hand, goes for a run every day, wears the same types of clothes that he wore pre-lockdown, and generally is more “active”; but is going stir-crazy not being able to just chat with people. Our personalities are coming into sharper focus than ever before. So, in this blog, I’m going to explore the five main recognised personality traits and think about how people with these traits are likely to respond during the pandemic.

What is Personality?

You can think of personality as a constellation of “ways of behaving”. You won’t always act in the same way, in every situation, for all time, but there are often consistent patterns. I can be assertive, outspoken and even gregarious at work, but quiet and retiring at home. The different contexts create different constellations, but who I am at work tends to remain the same from day-to-day, just as who I am at home tends to stay the same. Over time that may change but it will happen gradually. Of course, we all know that sometimes big life events can create changes in us but once the change has been made there tends to be some stability in how we act.

Although there is an awfully lengthy list of traits that describe our behaviour in specific ways, there are five “umbrella” traits that have been recognised in research. These Big Five (click here for a fact sheet on them) seem to capture the broad brush-strokes of our patterns of behaviour. In summary they are extroversion/introversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness to experience. Now, I must admit that I am not a personality researcher – in fact, I’m a little worried about what my friend and colleague, Dr Patrick Dunlop who is one of the real experts, will think about this post. But, that’s my introversion (and risk-aversion) speaking… I’ll knuckle down, feed on my conscientiousness to tick off this to-do task and think about how people might react during covid.

Extroverted or Introverted and Locked Down

Are you the life of the party or are you more likely to be found sitting in the kitchen at the party with just a small group of friends? Are you a dare-devil or are you a bookworm? These are extremes and of course I’m sure none describe you perfectly – people are just not that simple (see here for a fact-sheet on why). But chances are that you’re likely to be drawn to one of those descriptions more than the other. If it’s the former then you’re more of an extrovert, if it’s the latter then you’re more of an introvert.

Extroverts like a lot of stimulation and they tend to seek it externally. They look for excitement in risky situations and need contact with others to keep them energised. Poor extroverts. They are going to be the ones who are most affected by the lockdown. Extroverts thrive on contact with people and the informal, unplanned social contact that would otherwise come from shopping, travelling, working, going to the gym has all disappeared. Yes, you can have planned contact through zoom, Skype, facetime or other, but the quality and sheer amount is significantly lower. Extroverts are likely to be feeling lonely, drained and depressed and this will get worse as the isolation continues.

Isolation for introverts, on the other hand, may be a dream come true. Introverts are more sensitive to stimulation, so they need less overall – the external stimulation that extroverts crave is too much for the introverts on top of what is already going on in their minds. Introverts need space to regenerate after too much stimulation and the lockdown is likely to have provided that for them. So initially, introverts will have enjoyed social distancing. However, as the isolation continues and deepens, there is no longer any need for recovery for the introverts and they, too, will start to feel the effects. Introverts tend to stay in their own head, so the isolation is likely to make them feel separated from society and disengaged from the world.

If you’re an extrovert, try to build in more face-to-face contact, even if they are only 5 minute chats, throughout the day and evening.

If you’re an introvert, once you have your equilibrium, remember to consciously connect back in and fight against the pull towards reclusion.

Emotional Stability & the Pandemic

This trait used to be called “neuroticism” until it started being used more publicly and they realised that people didn’t like being labelled as neurotic! At one end of the spectrum is a completely laid-back person, nothing ever gets to them. Think of a stereotypical, Keanu-Reeves-style, surfer who goes through life with the same phlegmatic response. At the other end of the spectrum is a person who really experiences the highs and the lows of life. Someone who is very stable won’t experience euphoria and the delirium of excitement (unlike someone who is more unstable). But, neither will they be likely to experience intense despair and desolation.

Again, this is a very simplified account, but with that caveat in mind, think about where you might sit on that continuum. Do you have mood swings and tend to get stressed out easily (less stable) or are you relaxed most of the time (more stable)?

I’m guessing you can already see where this is going. If you are more emotionally stable you will be more likely to take covid-19 and its consequences in your stride. But if you are more emotionally unstable, you will not. You will feel every difficulty associated with coronavirus. If you are a key worker you may experience high anxiety, if you are in lockdown you may experience strong loneliness. You may also be more likely to use emotion-focused coping strategies such as escapism (e.g., reading, video games, binge watching, alcohol or drug taking).

If you’re more towards the stable end of the emotional stability continuum you can use your sangfroid to help others. Your ability to stay steady while others are rocking makes you invaluable as a safe port of call.

If you’re more towards the unstable end, make sure to look after yourself and not get lost in the emotion. Remember that “this too shall pass”. And just check that you’re not using any dysfunctional coping strategies that might be doing more harm than good.

Openness to Experience & Uncertainty

How do you feel about abstract art? What about routines? Do you like it when people keep asking you more and more questions that become more and more complex? Or do you just want to keep it simple! Research has found that people vary in their preference for uncertainty, difference, variety, change, alternative viewpoints, and complexity. If you enjoy these things then you are more open to experience; if you prefer clarity, routine and simplicity then you are less open to experience.

Of course, the whole world right now is in flux. Governments are riding on uncertainty and the Heraclitus cliché that ‘change is the only constant’ has never been more true. That means that those who are more open to experience can deal with the situation more easily than those who are less open to experience. They can engage with the world, knowing that the situation they face today will be different tomorrow and probably different the day after that, and it’s okay. But for those who are less open to experience, outside their house is an overwhelming cacophony of ambiguity. Those who are less open to experience are likely to be feeling uncertain and unwilling to take any risks because the ground under their feet keeps shifting.

If you’re more open to experience, take advantage of the uncertainty and push through with ideas and innovations (ideally, ones which lead us to a sustainable economy and society…). Right now, the world is your oyster!

If you’re less open to experience, find routines in your daily life. Identify aspects of your life that are within your control and focus on those. Find one evidence-based source of news about the situation and stick with it rather than being flooded on social media. Maintain your sense of security.

Agreeableness & Staying In

I hate to admit it, but my husband and I have a stereotypical, 1960s dinner party routine. He gets into a heated discussion on politics, I notice that somebody looks uncomfortable, I kick him under the table even though I agree with everything he’s said. The reason is that I am high on agreeableness – I want everybody to get along and for nobody to feel uncomfortable, even if I oppose wholeheartedly their entire way of thinking – and he is only moderate on agreeableness – he doesn’t mind if he offends somebody by accident, the truth is more important.

Those who are higher on agreeableness tend to be more optimistic and other-oriented. They are particularly focused on social harmony. During the covid-19 lockdown, this means that they are more likely to respond to pleas to stay at home if it helps others – such as the UK’s “Save the NHS” campaign. They are also probably more likely to feel guilty if they enjoy parts of the lockdown as discussed in a previous post.

On the other hand, those who are low on agreeableness tend to be more focused on what they think is right and find it more difficult to empathise with others. These people will find it more difficult to convince themselves to stay at home based on other-oriented messaging, particularly if they can’t see much of a risk to themselves.

If you’re high on agreeableness, you’re likely to be looking after others both inside your home and virtually. Make sure you look after your own needs as well.

If you’re low on agreeableness, you may be struggling with justifying the lockdown. It might help to think about the science behind the lockdown (let’s get that R-0 down below 1) and the long-term ramifications.

Conscientiousness & Adapting

Finally, we get to the dotting of i’s and the crossing of t’s. How detailed is your task list? Those who are like me have tried all the different to-do apps, have project boards in Trello, tasks in Todoist and collaborative lists in Teams. I like making sure that things get done. I don’t always like doing them (who likes cleaning the birdcage?) but I like the fact that it’s done. I’m high on conscientiousness. If you’re more impulsive, perhaps a bit disorganised, a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of person then you’re likely to be low in conscientiousness.

Those who are high in conscientiousness tend to be rule-followers. Rules are there for a reason. When we’re told to stay inside, we stay inside. We may not like it and we may fight against it, but we do it. On the other hand, those who are low in conscientiousness don’t care so much about the rules. Rules are there just because somebody said so and they aren’t necessarily the right thing to do. When we’re told to stay inside, we think about whether we want to follow that rule or not. If we don’t, then we go outside and break the lockdown rule.

Those high in conscientiousness are probably also more able to cope with staying inside because they have everything organised and set up. Yes, they can only go to the shops a few times a week, but they have that shared grocery list app (fully researched and reviewed beforehand of course) which means that it’s all done without a hitch. Those low in conscientiousness though are more likely to go to the grocery shops when they remember they need something and that might not connect with when they also have to go to the chemist or when they are exercising. Minimising outdoor trips is difficult when you’re flying with your pants.

If you’re high on conscientiousness, use your research and control abilities to make life easier for you and those around you while you must stay inside.

If you’re low on conscientiousness, you’ll need to fight against the urge to wing it, at least until restrictions are relaxed. At that point, your improvisation skills will come to the fore as we need to work out the best way of adapting to the new world.

2 thoughts on “Personality & Pandemics”

  1. Haryanni Binti Harun

    Hi Prof, Do you remember me, Nonie. I was one of your tutor in UWA (circa 2009) :). TQ for the wonderful write up! Sharing it ya ..

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