In a study published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers looked for psychological traits that might explain the maladjusted behaviors witnessed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. They found that Italians who were higher in right-wing authoritarianism and negative affectivity were more likely to engage in problematic behaviors like panic buying and anti-Asian discrimination. The authors reason that these negative responses might have been driven by the lack of consistent public health messaging during this time.
The successful navigation of a global disease outbreak relies largely on the cooperative behavior of citizens — especially in the early stages of the outbreak when scientific understanding of the disease is limited. Study authors Vincenzo Bochicchio and his colleagues seized an opportunity to study early reactions to a global pandemic, focusing on Italian citizens’ responses to the initial COVID-19 outbreak. Italy was the first Western country to face a large-scale outbreak, and information about the virus was severely limited at this time.
A questionnaire was distributed among 757 Italian adults between March 3 and March 7, 2020. This time period was marked by inconsistent messaging from local government and widespread uncertainty about the nature of the coronavirus. It was also just before the entire country went into strict lockdown on March 9.
The questionnaires included a measure of right-wing authoritarianism (RWA), a personality trait that involves a tendency to submit to authority and to endorse traditional views. The surveys also measured negative affectivity, the tendency to feel negative emotions like fear, anger, and disgust. And finally, the survey assessed anxiety about the infectiousness of COVID-19.
Subjects were then shown a list of five pandemic-related behaviors and asked to indicate how frequently they engaged in each of these behaviors. The behaviors were: stockpiling necessities, avoiding Chinese people, limiting social outings, refraining from traveling, and self-imposing quarantine. Importantly, although some of these behaviors would later be recognized as prosocial, Bochicchio and his team considered all five behaviors to be maladjusted since they went against the recommendations of authorities at the time. Refraining from normal activities (e.g., avoiding travel, limiting one’s outings) was considered to be acting out of fear and harming the economy and public order.
An analysis of the questionnaires found that respondents who scored higher in right-wing authoritarianism and negative affectivity engaged in more maladaptive behaviors during this early phase of the pandemic. Interestingly, RWA mediated the relationship between negative affectivity and problem behaviors. As negative affectivity went up, so did RWA, and in turn, so did pandemic-related problem behavior.
The authors speculate as to the relationship between RWA and negative affectivity. Previous studies have shown that people with negative affectivity tend to be highly intolerant of uncertainty. The early days of the pandemic in Italy were characterized by contradictory messaging from authorities, a lack of clear guidance, and unpredictability. Faced with this uncertainty, people with negative affectivity may have been eager for social control, which manifested as the endorsement of right-wing authoritarianism.
In this way, RWA emerged as a coping strategy in response to the perception that the country was in a dangerous state of disorder. “The paradox,” the researchers observe, “is that the personal need for order and societal control, shown by the mediating role of RWA, ends up increasing the likelihood of acting in maladjusted ways that, in turn, may also provoke additional problems of public order.”
The researchers also found an interactive role for infection anxiety. Infection anxiety moderated the relationship between RWA and problem behaviors, meaning it strengthened the link between RWA and maladjusted behavior. Said another way, the effect of right-wing authoritarianism on problem behaviors was more likely to occur among those with greater worry about being infected with the virus.
Bochicchio and his team say that their findings highlight the importance of clear and consistent public health messaging during a disease outbreak. They maintain that efforts should be focused on easing anxiety among the population since it is easier to address anxiety than RWA or negative affectivity. Anxiety can be alleviated with communication that is predictable, consistent, and accompanied by clear data — something that was missing from the early pandemic response in Italy, as well as in the United States.
The study, “Negative Affectivity, Authoritarianism, and Anxiety of Infection Explain Early Maladjusted Behavior During the COVID-19 Outbreak”, was authored by Vincenzo Bochicchio, Adam Winsler, Stefano Pagliaro, Maria Giuseppina Pacilli, Pasquale Dolce, and Cristiano Scandurra.