A recent UK survey suggests that individual differences in approach and avoidance tendencies are linked to concerns about COVID-19. Specifically, a higher fight-flight-freeze system score was associated with a higher likelihood of self-isolating during the pandemic. The study was published in the British Journal of Health Psychology.
By March of 2020, the new coronavirus had infected thousands in the United Kingdom, prompting the government to release a public health communication campaign. A study by Bacon and Corr explores how the reinforcement sensitivity theory (RST) of personality might explain behavior choices in response to these public health messages.
RST suggests that there are biological differences in the brain’s response to reinforcement and punishment. RST describes the fight-flight-freeze (FFFS) system, which is responsible for reacting to immediate threat and can lead to fear, panic, and avoidance behaviors. “As coronavirus is an intense aversive stimulus,” the study authors predict, “individuals high in the FFFS system should be more likely to self-isolate as an avoidance/escape response.”
RST also suggests two motivational systems that mediate behavior. One is the behavioral activation system, which is sensitive to reward and mediates goal-directed, approach behaviors. The other is the behavioral inhibition system (BIS) which is sensitive to punishment and is associated with fear and avoidance behaviors.
“We also predicted a role for the BIS system, reflecting a conflict between behaviours aimed at avoiding contagion and the behavioural activation system driven goal of continuing with normal life,” the researchers say.
A total of 202 subjects between the ages of 18-75 completed an online survey between March 18-19, 2020. Participants were asked to rate their level of concern for the coronavirus in terms of how it would affect UK health services, UK infrastructures, and their own and their family’s safety. They were additionally asked if they intended to self-isolate. Respondents also completed the Illness Attitudes Scale and the Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory of Personality Questionnaire.
Although older subjects showed more concern for the UK healthcare system and UK infrastructure, those who were younger were most likely to self-isolate. The authors address this surprising finding. “It is interesting that older people reported themselves as less likely to self-isolate even though they are the most concerned in other respects. This finding suggests that an increased level of concern does not necessarily lead to intention to self-isolate – indeed, the opposite may be true in some cases.”
Having a negative attitude towards illness and having a higher fight-flight-freeze system score was associated with a greater likelihood of self-isolating. Conversely, those with higher behavioral inhibition scores were less likely to self-isolate. The authors suggest that this might indicate a motivation to reduce goal conflict. “Goal-conflicted (i.e., anxious) individuals,” they explain, “are less inclined to self-isolate, perhaps as a coping mechanism, aiming to maintain a normal lifestyle, driven by approach processes inherent in reward reactivity.”
This might explain why younger people are more inclined to self-isolate. “Younger people who choose to self-isolate may care less about maintenance of normality and, instead, take actions that are overtly preventative – they may also feel less isolated as they are higher users of social media.”
The researchers conclude that their study provides evidence that personality traits related to approach and avoidance are associated with concerns about COVID-19. They suggest that health campaigns consider this possible emotional conflict when communicating to the public.
The study, “Coronavirus (COVID-19) in the United Kingdom: A personality-based perspective on concerns and intention to self-isolate”, was authored by Alison M. Bacon and Philip J. Corr.