Adherence to COVID-19 precautions linked to conscientiousness

December 9, 2020
A sign in a Houston park reminds people to practice social distancing, March 25, 2020. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

A sign in a Houston park reminds people to practice social distancing, March 25, 2020. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

In the two-week period after the Trump administration set public guidelines to slow the growth of coronavirus infections in March, a researcher determined that “conscientious” U.S. adults were most likely to follow the rules. 

In a study published in the December issue of Health Psychology, lead author Tim Bogg, an associate professor at Wayne State University, examined potential patterns and psychosocial correlations in the COVID-19 guideline adherence of American adults. 

At the initial spike of the virus and corresponding state and federal safety orders in mid-March, the White House Coronavirus Task Force published several guidelines for the public titled “15 Days to Slow the Spread” on March 16. These included staying home when sick, washing hands, staying six feet apart from others and avoiding eating indoors at restaurants. 

Now nine months into the pandemic, with cases and death rates in the U.S. the highest they have ever been, Bogg’s study looks back on the government’s first response to the virus and its recommendation that two weeks would be enough to combat it. 

“[It] sounds comical in hindsight,” Bogg told The Academic Times, referring to the initial timeline. “But it didn’t seem unreasonable, at the very least, and so they put forth these guidelines.”

For his research, Bogg used an online sampling platform to recruit and survey a diverse group of 500 Americans. He assessed demographics such as age, sex, ethnicity, race and income, as well as the participants’ judgment of their personal adherence to 10 different COVID-19 guidelines. 

Participants were also assessed on their perceived norms, perceived control, attitudes and self-efficacy toward the coronavirus guidelines, and the Big Five personality traits: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism and openness.

The main purpose of the study was to examine to what extent people perceived the new social norms as being relevant to them, and whether they followed them. The participants who rated themselves as the most conscientious were the most likely to follow the guidelines. Those who rated themselves as more open were also more likely to follow the guidelines, but to a lesser extent. 

Bogg found that in those first two weeks, about 88% of participants reported that they always avoided social gatherings of 10 or more, eating in restaurants, drinking in bars and visiting nursing homes. But more than 50% reported that they weren’t following some of the hygienic practices as closely, including disinfecting surfaces, avoiding touching the face and staying six feet away from others.

At Wayne State, Bogg has focused his research on the relationship between the personality domain of conscientiousness, which refers to being responsible, organized and diligent, and health-related behaviors and outcomes.

According to Bogg, conscientiousness can be partially defined as a tendency to follow socially prescribed norms for behavior. And the guidelines set by the Trump administration prescribed a limited set of behaviors for the general public.

“These are still health-related behaviors — how do you mitigate risk of infection, and potential disease? And what are the individual characteristics associated with engaging in those behaviors or not engaging those behaviors?” Bogg said.

Knowing now that there is a link between certain personality traits and adherence to recommended social norms such as COVID-19 guidelines, Bogg suggested that governments should have done more to incentivize the public to follow the health and safety rules.

Clearly explaining the benefits of adhering to the guidelines and the costs of not adhering may have helped offset the distrust and panic felt by some Americans that the shelter-in-place orders and mask mandates have infringed on personal liberties. 

Bogg said that an individual with a lower conscientiousness score who may not be as inclined to follow these guidelines may have been more likely to follow along if they understood what the benefits of adherence are, the concept of non-adherence risks and a defined timeframe for adherence.

“These individual differences, when scaled up, can have this enormous impact,” Bogg said. “If you have a million people, and all of a sudden [shift] their adherence to mask-wearing, social-distancing and hygienic practices by even one point on the scale that I’m using, that’s likely going to result in thousands of fewer infections and deaths.”

It was a quick turnaround for Bogg to secure the regulatory approvals and find a national sample of adults during the 15-day guidance period in March, but it was a necessary effort, he said.  

“I thought that this was an important stage in the progression of the pandemic, and the progression of how people are going to respond at an individual level to the coronavirus,” Bogg said.

After his initial research in March, he followed up with a continuation study in May that he plans to submit for publication. Bogg also plans to continue his research into COVID-19 guideline adherence with more studies conducted this month and throughout 2021, which may focus on vaccination rates and behavior.

The March study, titled “Demographic, Personality, and Social Cognition Correlates of Coronavirus Guideline Adherence in a U.S. Sample,” was published in the December issue of Health Psychology. Tim Bogg was the lead author, and Elizabeth Milad, a doctoral student in social-personality psychology at Wayne State, provided visualization and writing support for the article.

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