Personality in the Pandemic

May 2020

At present we are unwittingly participating in a global social psychology experiment as we navigate the uncertainties of social distancing and various states of lockdown in our Covid-19 world. It is revealing the unalterable diversity in personality; it requires of us compassionate understanding of differences; it behooves us to recognise we are all biased one way or the other; and we all need to exercise objectivity and humility in our appraisals of the complex reality that confronts us.

In particular, we may be noticing not only a wide range of opinions on the pandemic, from denialism to apocalyptic foreboding, but also very different reactions and behaviours across people.  No doubt there are sociological and politics-related reasons for these differences, but I wish to focus on two largely genetic causes: personality and the tension between self-interest and reciprocal altruism.   

Why?  Because reliable personality differences will lead to very different beliefs and reactions and of course misunderstandings among people.  And these differences will systematically affect this universal tension between self-interest and altruism.

Some fundamentals: There is broad agreement among psychologists that personality can be reliably understood in terms of 5 normally distributed traits as captured in the acronym OCEAN:

O          Openness to Experience: love change, variety, new ideas, experimentation

C          Conscientiousness: attention to detail, keep their word, reliable, follow rules

E          Extraversion: get energy and positive emotion from social interaction, the more the better

A          Agreeableness:  value harmony, may sacrifice own needs to keep the peace

N          Neuroticism: more frequent, stronger negative emotions, more sensitive

The lion’s share of these differences is genetic and they do not change across the lifespan.  They operate as broad preferences – as ‘pre-perceptive’ biasing mechanisms.  These preferences guide our continuous, largely unconscious, cost benefit analyses concerning what actions to take in life. The further we are from the mean on the normal distribution, the more likely we have systematic biases or distortions in our intuitive reality appraisals (these add to the whole raft of systematic biases that human cognitive heuristics inevitably produce).

When we encounter other people, who may sit on the other end of the personality dimensions to ourselves, we tend to feel they are weird or alien, or indeed morally questionable.  Those open to experience think those who are more closed are rigid, boring.  The latter consider those who are open as dangerous and crazy – and so on.  We are all prone to this egocentric bias: after all, everyone should be like me… wouldn’t the world be a better place?!

How might these differences predictably play out in the current reality?  Well, if you’re like me (moderately open to experience, high on conscientiousness, quite introverted, very agreeable, moderately emotionally stable,) you’re like a pig in mud at home.  I live in a nice place, with a garden and a lap pool. The internet provides me with all I need for my openness to experience. 

But spare a thought for the more emotionally volatile and sensitive types, especially if they are super conscientious.  They’ll be really anxious and stressed.

I do find myself being somewhat righteous about my less conscientious, more disagreeable brethren when I venture out of home to exercise or shop: when they stockpile supermarket items leaving others short; when they brush past me too closely or stand too close in the queue, or shake hands with friends with seeming nonchalance etc. Generally, however, I’m much more worried about the broader physical and financial suffering of those worse off than me and how this might all play out.

Let’s assume that about a quarter of the population have personalities with a mix of low openness, high extraversion, low conscientiousness and low agreeableness.  Such people will tire of social isolation and lockdown more quickly than most. They will read the data differently, finding good reasons to revert to normal life, to rate the risks as lower, and to desist from self-sacrifice when they themselves may have a relatively low risk profile.  They may be more prone to consider the government measures as over-reactions, as draconian or as bleeding heart liberalism ignoring the terrible impact on the economy.

As the infection-rate curves flatten, we’ll see more protest and more breaking of strict social distancing rules (unless harsher penalties for breaches change the cost benefit analyses significantly).  And it will, I think, follow pretty closely along these personality preferences.

Which brings us to the second factor to consider here: the genetically endowed tension between self-interest and reciprocal altruism.  Both of these deeply inscribed human motivations have been central to human survival (at the individual and species level).  They are not contradictory; but rather two separate motivational vectors. 

In the current context of Covid 19, we see the imperative of reciprocal altruism writ large: that if we all do this together, we will all stand a better chance of survival.  This inevitably brings some measure of constraint and restriction of personal liberties.  It is a type of enforced reciprocal altruism. 

As time passes, we all will continue to run implicit cost benefit analyses weighing up the ‘right’ course of action for us.  Of course, different personality types will intuitively ‘select’ different types of evidence from that available (‘the nature of nurture’) and, as the costs of these lockdown measures build (job losses, financial pressure, boredom, yearning for normalcy etc.), we’ll see a significant portion of the population opting for more direct self-interest faster than the rest of the population.  

Those closed to experience will want to revert to ‘normal’; those low on agreeableness will perceive the restraints as unfair; those low on conscientiousness won’t worry so much about following the rules.  And of course, these cost benefit analyses will be massively influenced by people’s level of wealth, income, ethnicity, age etc.  But, in general, these personality types will move more readily towards self-interest and away from altruism.

By contrast, those open to experience will look forward to a new normal; those high on agreeableness will be feeling deeply for their fellow human beings; those high on conscientiousness will not be taking chances and will want to do what is safest. And introverts will continue feeling pretty OK about having to deal less with humans!

So, what to do with all of this?   The first is to be more tolerant and less righteous about difference.  People don’t choose their personalities any more than they choose their eye colour.  

Secondly, these preferences and biases are not absolute.  They can be moderated with objectivity and reflection. As Daniel Kahneman (2011, Thinking, Fast and Slow) argues convincingly, we also need to use our intelligence to engage our slower, more analytic System 2 thinking to stress test our intuitions using solid science, objective data and engaged, respectful debate.

It makes a massive difference to simply know we are, all of us, biased. We need to know ourselves, and recognise our biases not as some sort of God-like omniscience, but as perspectives and preferences largely inscribed in us from birth. Not only should we have compassion for our own biases, we should develop compassion for the preference and prejudices of others.  At the very least we should limit our upset when faced with difference.

More positively, we should search for consensus based on objective fact, on science and on reason.  We can rise above the strong feelings our personality preferences use to motivate our actions. We can reject the polarizing and oxymoronic narratives of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ and actually listen to people with years of expertise.  The stakes are high enough for us to all search for the truth and base our actions on that.  Any other path is fraught with dangers not only to our health, but to our body politic and our civil society.