Scientists have uncovered a cluster of psychological characteristics associated with people who refuse to comply with COVID-19 safety regulations. Their new findings, published in the journal PLOS One, shed light on the individual factors and attitudes underlying deviant behavior during the pandemic.
“When Sydney first went into lockdown, I couldn’t do my regular in-lab research projects, including novel ways of measuring resilience and investigating individual differences in decision-making,” said study author Sabina Kleitman, an associate professor at the University of Sydney and director of the Cognitive and Decision Sciences Research Lab.
“I felt confused by different messages and information available from official and non-official sources. After feeling a little depressed and disoriented, I realized that I no longer need a simulation to research resilience and decision-making. I can explore all sorts of human behaviors using the unique circumstances that the COVID-19 pandemic presents.”
Her co-author, professor Lazar Stankov, added: “From the beginning of the pandemic, it became clear that some people are likely to resist complying with the experts’ advice. The reasons for choosing not to comply appeared to be motivated partly by political outlooks. Others expressed views reminiscent of ‘fake news’ that they seemed to have obtained via social media.”
“Psychological processes studied by cognitive, clinical and social psychologists are implicated in deciding whether to act one way or another. I thought that emerging worldwide threats would provide an opportunity to study human decision-making behavior in a real-life situation.”
For their study, the researchers surveyed 1,575 participants from Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada in March and April 2020, during the first wave of the pandemic.
The extensive survey included both self-reported questionnaires and psychological tests. The researchers collected data on information consumption, physical health, psychological resilience, personality traits, right-wing authoritarianism, and other factors. The participants also indicated their compliance with public health guidelines, such as washing hands more frequently, self-isolation if feeling sick and social distancing.
“Compliance vs. non-compliance were the most important decisions that people had to make during the different stages of a pandemic. I spoke to my colleagues, and this research resulted from an international collaboration between University of Sydney, University of New South Wales, and the University of Saskatchewan (Canada),” Kleitman said.
Using a statistical technique known as latent profile analysis, which allows for individuals with similar patterns of responses to be grouped together, the researcher classified 10% of the participants as the non-compliant group. The other 90% of participants were mostly compliant with public health guidelines.
The non-compliant group was more concerned with the social and economic costs of COVID-19 health measures compared to the compliant group, and less concerned with the virus itself. The two groups did not differ in their use of casual information sources, such as social media, to obtain information about the virus. However, the non-compliant group was less likely to check the legitimacy of sources and less likely to obtain information from official sources.
“It was not age, intelligence and decision-making metrics that separated compliant and non-compliant individuals,” Kleitman told PsyPost. “It was primarily personality characteristics, attitudes towards protective measures, levels of worry about COVID-19, and information gathering strategies, as some demographic characteristics like sex that were different between the two groups. Worries, attitudes and beliefs can be shaped and changed! And this is a positive message.”
The researchers found several differences in personality traits between the non-compliant and compliant group. The non-compliant group was more extraverted, but less agreeable and less open to new experiences and ideas. Non-compliant people were also more likely to report using denial, substance use, and behavioral disengagement to cope with problems.
“There are indeed some psychological characteristics that non-compliant group shared. To me, the most important is low openness/intellect to experience that possibly led to the utilization of maladaptive coping strategies, tendency to trust and check the news less and use official sources less,” Stankov said.
In line with previous research, non-compliant group also scored higher on reactance, or the tendency to experience unpleasant arousal when asked to follow orders. They also reported looser cultural norms and scored higher on a measure of amorality.
“What might be a perfectly adaptive personality trait before/after pandemic (extraversion), in combination with some other personality traits (being less considerate and less open to new ideas/experiences), coupled with negative attitudes towards protective behaviors, lesser worries associated with COVID-19, and uninformed information-gathering strategies, formed a dangerous and maladaptive cluster of psychological characteristics and behaviors which non-compliant individuals shared,” Kleitman explained.
“In the non-compliant group, these characteristics clustered together with what I’m tempted to call ‘COVID-19 dark triad’: prioritizing one’s self-interests, being more reactant towards new rules and regulations, and thinking social norms are flexible.”
Those in the non-compliant group were also more likely than the compliant group to anticipate leaving their home for non-essential reasons, such as for religious reasons, to meet with friends or family, because they were bored, or to exercise their right to freedom. These non-essential motivations “can lead to serious problems in trying to contain the spread, especially of the very dangerous delta variant,” Kleitman told PsyPost. “The important message here: the non-compliant individuals need to be helped/educated/nudged to realize that it is better to be bored, frustrated, and restricted for a short period of time than dead, and/or dragging this lockdown out for a long period of time.”
But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“I am concerned about the representativeness of the samples from the four countries included in our study,” Stankov told PsyPost. “Also, the data were collected at the early stages of the pandemic, and questions may be raised about the relevance of our findings for what has happened since. How has information about the spread of the pandemic been influential? For example, what were the effects of lockdowns? Did the emergence of new strains of the virus change the behavior of the non-compliers?
“I think it will be essential to determine if there is a ‘general tendency’ to be non-complier,” he continued. “In other words, do non-compliers in one area (pandemic) tend to be non-compliers in another area (engage in other rule-breaking behaviors?)”
“Research is urgently needed into the current non-compliance prevalence rates and psychological characteristics behind it,” Kleitman said. “We now live in a world in which prolonged compliance with some rules and regulations will be needed in addition to mass vaccination. We need to understand what drives people to endanger their own lives and the lives of people around them. We need to understand the role of COVID-19 fatigue on mental wellbeing and compliance more. We urgently need to understand the complex nature of decisions surrounding vaccination as well.”
“We have further research we are currently writing up from data collected during different pandemic stages in Australia with a focus on mental well-being, cognitive fitness and quality of life, as well as compliance,” she added. “Some exciting results are coming out from these studies. Watch this space.”
The study, “To comply or not comply? A latent profile analysis of behaviours and attitudes during the COVID-19 pandemic“, was authored by Sabina Kleitman, Dayna J. Fullerton, Lisa M. Zhang, Matthew D. Blanchard, Jihyun Lee, Lazar Stankov, and Valerie Thompson.