Study finds women, older people more likely to embrace distancing

With more than 36 million people diagnosed as having COVID-19 worldwide to date, physical distancing remains one of the most effective ways to prevent COVID-19 spread until the widespread distribution of effective vaccines, and two new studies demonstrate who is most likely to embrace the measure—most notably women, older people, and conscientious types.

Individual compliance with government-issued recommendations for physical distancing and other restrictions varies widely, and policymakers are eager to identify strategies for future public health campaigns that encourage greater adherence. The two PLOS One studies examined compliance with COVID-19 restrictions, highlighting psychological motivations, barriers, and personality traits that affect individual decisions to abide by restrictions.

Facilitators, barriers to distancing

A survey of 2,013 adults (84% female) in North America and Europe examined rates of psychological motivations—factors that serve as facilitators or barriers—for physical (also called social) distancing compliance and rates of adherence among participants.

Disseminated through social media from Mar 29 to Apr 16—the period of strict distancing regulations in North America and much of Europe—the online convenience survey queried respondents about factors that made it more or less likely for individuals to engage in physical distancing.

Participants selected statements from a list of 55 phrases reflecting motivations related to distancing adherence, such as, "I want to avoid spreading the virus to others." Statements included both internal factors, such as feeling a personal responsibility to protect the community, as well as external factors such as the ability to work remotely. Participants were also provided with a list of behaviors consistent with physical distancing recommendations and asked to rate each behavior on a frequency scale from 1 (never) to 4 (always).

The researchers found that strong facilitators of physical distancing behavior included the closure of restaurants (endorsed by 95% of respondents) and community centers/recreational facilities (94%), followed by a desire to protect others (86%), self-protection (84%), responsibility for community protection (84%), and the ability to work remotely (51%).

Top barriers to physical distancing included seeing many people on the streets in the respondent's area of residence (31% endorsed), implementation of distancing policies in the workplace (26.3%), having friends or family who needed help running errands (25%), an inability to work remotely (16%), feeling stressed when alone (13%), and a lack of trust in government pandemic messages (12.7%). Of note, barriers reflecting misconceptions or conspiracy beliefs were endorsed by only 1% to 3% of respondents.

While the study authors did not find perfect adherence for any of the distancing behaviors, avoiding crowded places showed the highest compliance, with 90.6% of respondents reporting that they always adhered. Adherence was also high for avoiding non-essential travel (90.5%); restaurants, bars, and coffee shops (88.8%); and non-essential gatherings (88.7%).

Adherence to physical distancing behaviors varied by gender, with women twice as likely as men to avoid socializing in person (odds ratio [OR], 2.02; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.45 to 2.82) and 1.5 times as likely to maintain a safe distance in public (OR, 1.5; 95% CI, 1.11 to 2.03). Age was also a factor in compliance, with people 45 and older more than twice as likely to demonstrate social distancing compliance compared with younger respondents (OR, 2.27; 95% CI, 1.43 to 3.59 for ages 45 to 64; OR, 2.55; 95% CI, 1.32 to 4.95 for ages 65 and older).

The study authors advocate for future health communications targeting men and younger individuals with messages focusing on self-protection and protection of the community as strong motivators that are associated with higher adherence.

"In line with our findings that wanting to protect self, others, and the community were the strongest motivators associated with higher adherence to social distancing recommendations, it is important that these compassionate-focused and pro-social attitudes are kept at the center of future public health campaigns about social distancing," the authors added.

The study findings support research published earlier this week that showed women are more likely not only to embrace physical distancing but hand hygiene, mask wearing, and other preventive steps, as well.

Personality and compliance

The second PLOS One study examined the association between personality and compliance with public health recommendations, finding certain personality traits related to higher compliance with guidelines. The study also highlights the potential to increase compliance with COVID-19 transmission mitigation guidelines by developing government messaging tailored to specific personality traits.

The study sampled 8,549 Japanese citizens from 20 to 64 years of age from Mar 26 to Mar 28 in an effort to investigate whether five major personality traits—conscientiousness, agreeableness, openness to experience, extraversion (being outgoing), and emotional stability—are related to compliance with transmission mitigation behavioral guidelines.

Respondents completed the Ten Item Personality Inventory to identify major personality traits and then were asked to rate their adherence to 21 pandemic mitigation behavioral guidelines on a five-point scale from 1 (very true) to 5 (not at all true).

After controlling for gender, annual household income, education, marital status, and source of pandemic-related information, the study authors found that, of the five personality traits, extraversion negatively influences the tendency of people to comply with COVID-19 transmission mitigation behavioral guidelines. People rated high in conscientiousness were 31% more likely to adopt behavioral guidelines, followed by openness to experience and agreeableness (19% and 17% more likely, respectively), with emotional stability showing no positive or negative effect.

The authors cite previous studies of human behavior that showed greater success when persuasion messages are targeted to individuals' unique psychological characteristics. They say governments should tailor messaging to different personality traits to encourage compliance with public health guidelines.

The authors also suggest that initiatives designed to trigger certain personality traits may improve compliance, pointing to evidence that messages of belonging and obligation have been shown to help develop conscientiousness.

"We believe that this research not only supports prior work in highlighting the importance of pro-social messages, but also the importance of knowing the specific personality traits that may make individuals less likely to comply with COVID-19 transmission mitigation behavioral guidelines," the study authors noted.

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