A new Italian study explores the psychological factors impacting perceived emotional problems during COVID-19. The findings uncovered maladaptive personality traits and supernatural causal beliefs about COVID-19 as predictors of clinical emotional problems. The study was published in Personality and Individual Differences.
The 2019 coronavirus brought countries around the world to a halt, infecting millions of people and leading to the adoption of drastic social distancing measures. As researchers have noted, data on the mental health outcomes associated with quarantine are limited. Study authors Antonella Somma and colleagues set out to decrease this gap in research by examining the prevalence of emotional problems in Italian residents during the pandemic.
“We relied on the emotional problem construct because reactions to quarantine may include a range of negative emotions rather than have a single, specific form,” Somma and associates say.
The study authors describe the dangers imposed by non-scientific claims about COVID-19, especially supernatural conspiracy theories. “Unfortunately, misinformation may be related to fear and prejudice, which in turn may undermine the subject’s willingness to implement the correct practices to prevent the COVID-19, thus putting at risk his/her own lives, as well as others’ lives (Calisher et al., 2020),” the authors say.
A study was conducted between March 16 and March 21, 2020, to explore the impact of causal beliefs about COVID-19 and maladaptive personality traits on emotional problems. A sample of 1,043 Italian adults (average age = 32) completed an online survey which included an emotional problems scale. Participants also completed the Personality Inventory for DSM-5 Short-Form to assess the five personality domains of “Negative Affectivity, Detachment, Antagonism, Disinhibition, and Psychoticism.” Lastly, subjects completed the COVID-19 Causal Belief Questionnaire to assess their supernatural beliefs, conspiracy beliefs, and scientifically supported beliefs about the coronavirus.
Results showed that around 13% of respondents presented with scores corresponding to clinical emotional difficulties. The researchers suggest this finding indicates “population-level resilience”, showing that the majority of Italian residents maintained their well-being during the pandemic.
Still, researchers highlight the importance of identifying those who are most at risk of experiencing emotional harm in a given population. Three dysfunctional personality traits emerged as predictors of clinical level emotional problems. The strongest personality predictor was negative affectivity, which can be described as a tendency to experience negative emotions. Next, detachment, which describes the tendency to avoid interpersonal intimacy, was an additional predictor. Finally, disinhibition, which is associated with impulsivity and recklessness, emerged as the final predictor of emotional problems.
When it came to causal beliefs, results showed that holding supernatural causal beliefs about the pandemic was a risk factor for clinical emotional problems. This was especially true when it came to beliefs about COVID-19 as the result of a political conspiracy. Surprisingly, scientifically supported beliefs did not emerge as either a risk or a protective factor for emotional issues.
“Our findings,” the authors say, “were consistent with the hypothesis that conspiratorial beliefs may represent an attempt of those in high emotional distress at making sense of the world, thus allaying distress (e.g., Douglas, Sutton, & Cichoka, 2017). Treating emotional distress underlying conspiracy theories rather than directly confronting them with scientific evidence may represent a helpful strategy in shifting these beliefs.”
The authors address the limitation that their study relied on self-report measures of emotional issues and call for future research to expand on their findings by using different methods of assessment.
The study, “Dysfunctional personality features, non-scientifically supported causal beliefs, and emotional problems during the first month of the COVID-19 pandemic in Italy”, was authored by Antonella Somma, Giulia Gialdi, Robert F. Krueger, Kristian E. Markon, Claudia Frau, Silvia Lovallo, and Andrea Fossati.