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Health Series: Research Spotlight

How might personality affect our likelihood of self-isolating?

Study sheds light on how personality and age may have affected concerns of UK adults as the COVID-19 crisis developed.

by Shamim Quadir

A recent study surveyed UK adults with the aim of understanding some of their concerns and actions relating to the developing COVID-19 pandemic as it stood in mid- March, 2020.

Co-authored by Professor Philip Corr, Department of Psychology at City, University of London, and Dr Alison Bacon, Department of Psychology at the University of Plymouth, the study suggests that respondent personality traits relating to a framework of ‘approach’ and ‘avoidance’ behaviours were linked to their concerns about the crisis.

For example, the study found that reporting a higher urge to stay safe (one's ‘fight, flight, freeze system’), was associated with reporting more concern about personal safety from the virus, and a higher likelihood to self-isolate. It also found that high levels of ‘behavioural inhibition’ (linked to worry/anxiety) were associated with being less likely to report an intention to self-isolate.

Age was also a factor in the likelihood of reporting the intention to self-isolate. Surprisingly, whilst older adults reported being more concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on the NHS and other social infrastructures, they were less likely than younger adults to report an intention to self-isolate.

Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory

The study characterised ‘approach' and ‘avoidance’ behaviours within a psychological framework known as ‘Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory’(RST), which assumes that personality is underpinned by three biologically driven systems:

  • The behavioural approach system (BAS) includes processes relating to sensitivity to opportunity and novel experiences, planning and motivation, sensitivity to imminent reward and pleasure (reward reactivity), and impulsivity.
  • The fight, flight, freezing system (FFFS) mediates reactions to immediately aversive stimuli, leading to fear, avoidance and escape behaviours.
  • The behavioural inhibition system (BIS) motivates caution and contributes to risk assessment, but also rumination on the past and worry about the future, which in turn can lead to depression and anxiety.

In the study, 202 adults were surveyed online on the 18th and 19th of March 2020; prior to the national lockdown due to COVID-19 announced by UK government on the 23rd of March, 2020.  

Respondents were resident in the UK, aged between 18 and 75 years, and completed questionnaires relating to their levels of depression, anxiety, their attitudes to illness and a Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory Personality Questionnaire (RSTPQ).

They also answered questions on how concerned they were about the effect of the COVID-19 virus on the NHS and health services generally, its effect on other UK infrastructure, their own personal safety and people close to them, and their intention to self-isolate. Nine respondents reported that they or someone close to them had tested positive for COVID-19.

What do the findings mean?

Within the context of an RST framework, the authors suggest that whilst some adults surveyed responded defensively to the developing COVID-19 crisis (due to their fight, flight, freeze system), others may have experienced a psychological conflict between their concern for staying safe from the virus (behavioural inhibition system), and a desire to maintain an as normal, and as pleasurable a life as possible (reward reactivity).

Furthermore, the authors suggest that whilst older adults were less likely than younger adults to self-isolate, this may be because younger adults felt less isolated due to their higher use of social media to stay connected, and that older adults may fall into the psychologically conflicted group who are trying to maintain as normal and pleasurable life as possible.

Co-author of the study, Professor Philip Corr said:

Policy makers and others communicating health information should consider both sides of this emotional-motivational coin and not assume a one-size fits all approach – personality differences matter.

The study is published in the British Journal of Health Psychology.

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