Editor's Note: The research below was conducted in partnership between Franklin Templeton and Gallup.
As new COVID-19 infections persist at high levels throughout much of the United States and worldwide, new research from the Franklin Templeton-Gallup Economics of Recovery Study shows the role of personality traits in affecting adherence to public health guidelines, acceptance of vaccination and confidence in going out in public.
People who take pride in protecting others from harm or feel a sense of duty to help vulnerable community members are much more likely to agree to be vaccinated, wear masks and engage in social distancing than those who say those traits are untrue for them. They are also more confident in their ability to protect themselves when out in public. These protective and helpful inclinations are commonly found in both genders and members of both political parties.
Previous reporting has suggested that beliefs about masculinity and toughness play an important role in disease suppression behaviors and support. In contrast to the view that stereotypically masculine traits dampen compliance, people who value the importance of physical strength and taking action are more likely to accept the vaccine, wear masks in stores and isolate themselves from others than those who do not.
Finally, the Big 5 personality traits predict mask-wearing in stores and other public health behaviors. People who are more introverted, conscientious, agreeable, emotionally stable and creative are more likely to wear masks. Extraverts are more likely to eat out and consume other away-from-home services and are less likely to be social distancing.
These traits help explain individual behaviors, but they don't account for gender and political party differences in behaviors and attitudes.
Beyond Politics and Media
It is well documented that political party affiliation has divided the American public regarding attitudes and behaviors related to the pandemic, such as mask-wearing and social distancing. In previous research, we have also documented that access to information affects people's reported compliance with public health recommendations. Yet, these factors do not fully account for variation in COVID-relevant attitudes and behaviors, even after adjusting for an extensive list of demographic characteristics.
Outgoing President Donald Trump mocked his political rival, President-elect Joe Biden, for wearing a mask and rarely wore one out in public himself, while some of the president's supporters have linked mask-wearing to femininity. This debate prompted Biden to criticize Trump for acting "falsely masculine."
Along these lines, evidence from the public health literature shows that women tend to be more likely to adopt non-pharmaceutical interventions during respiratory pandemics (like social distancing and mask-wearing), whereas men are more likely to accept vaccinations. Likewise, people who report higher levels of "toughness," according to one study, are less supportive of mask-wearing. At the same time, other research finds that women who score higher on a scale of femininity have attitudes closer to men who score higher on a scale of masculinity than men with more nuanced gender identities, raising the issue that political ideology -- rather than masculinity -- explains these differences since conservatives are more likely to express gender-conforming identities.
Other aspects of personality may be relevant to public health compliance. The psychological dispositions measured by the Big 5 personality traits (extraversion, agreeableness, emotional stability, conscientiousness and openness to experience) are predictive of mortality and many health-related behaviors.
Personality Traits by Gender and Political Party
In recent waves of the Franklin Templeton-Gallup Economic of Recovery Study, we collected data on respondents' personality traits to better understand how these factors contribute to public health. Each of the items and related constructs is listed below, along with gender and political party differences.
To study masculine beliefs, we reviewed the Masculinity in Chronic Disease Inventory, which was developed to identify concerns with long-term diagnoses and treatments associated with conditions like prostate cancer. We adapted four items from this inventory that capture different dimensions of beliefs deemed relevant to masculinity in the psychological literature, though only three of the four are more prominent in men (see table below).
We also considered protective and other-regarding motivations for public health compliance. These are captured in two items: "I take pride in protecting others from harm," and "I feel a duty to help the weakest members of my community."
Finally, in Wave 6, conducted in December, we collected a short-form battery to measure the Big 5 personality traits, some of the most well-validated and heavily researched constructs in psychology.
Across both waves, we measured public health attitudes and behaviors, including acceptance of the vaccine, social distancing, mask usage, fear of the virus, the likelihood of consuming away-from-home services (such as eating out and traveling), confidence about going out safely from one's home, and support for opening schools and restaurants.
To summarize these responses by gender: men tend to give greater importance to physical strength than women, identify as being risk- and action-oriented, and less protective. Men report being more emotionally stable and conscientious. Women report being more agreeable and open to experience. There are no gender differences in self-reliance, extraversion or a sense of duty to help the weak.
As for partisan effects, Republicans express greater reluctance to depend on others, but there are no self-reported party differences in the importance of physical strength, risk-preferences, action-orientation or being protective. Democrats are only slightly more likely to express a sense of duty toward the weak. Differences along the Big 5 traits are more prominent, though small. Republicans tend to describe themselves as more extraverted, emotionally stable and conscientious, whereas Democrats are more open to experience. There are no party differences in agreeableness.
The gender and partisan differences in personality traits are relatively small compared with gender and partisan differences in COVID-related attitudes and public health behaviors. These public-health-related gaps are significantly different by gender on eight of 10 measures and significant by party for nine out of 10 (all except consuming away-from-home services). The gender gap on vaccine acceptance is large, with men being more likely to say they will get the vaccine by 0.42 standard deviations, consistent with prior research. By contrast, the largest personality gap between men and women (emotional stability) reflects a 0.31 standard deviation difference.
As found in the literature, the COVID-related attitudes and behaviors of women suggest greater worry and caution relative to men. However, this caution does not necessarily generate greater compliance with public health guidelines. Women are no more likely than men to report social distancing and are much less likely to say they will get the COVID vaccine.
As discussed in detail elsewhere, compared with Republicans, Democrats are consistently more likely to abide by public health guidelines and to oppose re-opening schooling and indoor dining at restaurants.
|Gender differences||Partisan differences|
|Average male - average female||P-value||Average Republicans - Democrats||P-value|
|Strength: Being physically strong is important to me||0.07||0.02||-0.02||0.47|
|Risk: I am eager to take risks when necessary||0.22||0||0.01||0.84|
|Action-oriented: I like to take action
in the face of problems
|Independent: I don't like to depend on others||-0.03||0.29||0.09||0.01|
|Protective: I take pride in protecting others from harm||-0.12||0.01||-0.05||0.22|
|Helpful: I feel a duty to help the weakest
members of my community
|Extraversion: Extraverted, enthusiastic
and [NOT] Reserved, quiet
|Agreeableness: Sympathetic, warm
and [NOT] Critical, quarrelsome
|Conscientiousness: Dependable, self-disciplined
and [NOT] disorganized, careless
|Emotional stability: Calm, emotionally stable
and [NOT] Anxious, easily upset
|Openness: Open to new experiences, complex
and [NOT] Conventional, uncreative
|Public health behaviors and attitudes|
|Wearing mask in store||-0.13||0||-0.23||0|
|Wearing mask among friends and family||0.05||0.09||-0.35||0|
|Very confident in ability to protect
oneself when outside home
|Fear of harm from COVID||-0.07||0||-0.47||0|
|Fear of others being harmed from COVID||-0.15||0||-0.43||0|
|Support in-person schooling||0.15||0||0.37||0|
|Support indoor dining||0.08||0||0.55||0|
|Notes: Top items are from the November 2020 wave. Items asks "How true are each of these statements for you? (1) Not at all true - (5) Very true Responses range from 1. Not at all true. 2 Mostly untrue 3. Somewhat true 4. Mostly true 5. Very true." Big 5 items are from the December 2020 wave. Item reads: "Here are a number of personality traits that may or may not apply to you. Please indicate the extent to which you agree or disagree with each statement. You should rate the extent to which the pair of traits applies to you, even if one characteristic applies more strongly than the other." Scale is 1-7, with 1 being disagree strongly and 7 agree strongly. 4 is neither agree nor disagree. P-value measures probability of difference occurring by chance (p-value). Values equal to or less than 0.05 indicate the response is statistically significant by conventional standards.|
|Franklin Templeton-Gallup Economics of Recovery Study|
Effects of Personality Traits on Public Health Behaviors and Attitudes
Using these data, I test whether personality traits predict attitudes and behaviors described above.
In the baseline model, I run only a simple regression. This tests whether people who score higher or lower on a certain trait (e.g., conscientiousness) are more or less likely to engage in a given public health behavior (e.g., social distancing). Since these traits vary by gender, political party and other demographic groups, I run a more complex analysis of the same analysis.
I include control variables for respondent demographics, including race, gender, ethnicity, level of education, political party and age group, and consider average effects by state (i.e., state fixed effects). I also include several financial variables related to the respondent's income and wealth: household income, whether the respondent owns a home, identifies as an investor, and level of savings before the pandemic. Finally, I include subjective assessments of whether the respondent or someone they live with has a medical condition that puts them at greater risk of harm from COVID.
The personality traits described above are predictive of a variety of COVID-related attitudes and behaviors, and the estimated effects from both the simple model and the version that adjusts for demographics are plotted below.
Vaccine Acceptance and Social Distancing
In both the baseline and adjusted models, vaccine acceptance is significantly more likely for people who say being "physically strong is important to me," as well as those more inclined to take risks or take action in the face of problems. The strongest effects are found for those who express pride in protecting others from harm or possess a sense of duty to help weaker members of their community. The relationship between the Big 5 personality traits and vaccine acceptance is weaker. Conscientiousness and emotional stability predict greater average acceptance of the vaccine, but not after adding demographic controls. Agreeableness, however, consistently predicts a greater likelihood of taking the vaccine.
Results are similar for social distancing. The strongest effects are, again, found for people with protective or helpful tendencies. Those who value physical strength are also more likely to isolate themselves, and extraverts are less likely to be isolating themselves, even after including demographic controls. Since a desire to be around others is a defining trait of extraversion, this result is unsurprising.
Dumbbell dot plot. How elements of personality impact willingness to wear masks around friends and in stores.
Mask use in stores and among friends and family who live outside one's household is more common for people who say physical strength is important to them, who are action-oriented, more self-reliant, and protective of others and helpful to vulnerable members of their community. People who are more risk-oriented are less likely to report wearing masks in stores but more likely to report wearing them among friends and family. In other words, people who reject wearing masks tend to give less value to physical strength, action, self-reliance and protecting others from harm.
Extraversion predicts less mask use in stores, whereas agreeableness, emotional stability, conscientiousness and openness to experience strongly predict greater mask use in stores. Among friends and family, emotional stability and conscientiousness are no longer significant, but the others are.
Overall, this evidence suggests that there is no relationship between stereotypically masculine beliefs and mask use. Said otherwise, people with more "macho" attitudes report wearing masks at least as frequently as those with less macho attitudes.
Dumbbell dot plot. How elements of personality impact willingness to wear masks around friends and in stores.
Confidence and Consumption
Aside from these preventative actions, people's fear of getting or spreading the virus may affect their behaviors, including their willingness to purchase items or services away-from-home. Previous research from this project finds that confidence in one's ability to be safe while out in public is one of the strongest predictors of whether respondents are dining out, traveling or engaging in other consumer behaviors that have otherwise faded during the pandemic.
The consumption of services away from home is closely tied to high risk tolerance, extraversion, lack of either agreeableness or conscientiousness. Those who feel protective of others or express a duty to help are no less likely to consume services but are more likely to express confidence in their ability to protect themselves while out in public. Extraversion and emotional stability also predict confidence, as do self-reliance, action-orientation and those who value physical strength.
Dumbbell dot plot. How elements of personality impact perceptions of consumption away from home and confidence in safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced policies and guidelines that are extremely disruptive to people's preferences and routines. Personality traits shape many aspects of life, including motivations for complying with directions and how they are interpreted, so it is not surprising that some core behaviors and attitudes related to the pandemic are closely tied to personality. At the same time, gender and partisan gaps are by no means explained by personality differences, which are relatively small across gender and party affiliations.
Public health research and information strategies could benefit from considering how messages play out differently across people with different political and psychological dispositions. A clear finding is that traditional views of masculinity need not be a barrier to promoting compliance, especially if framed in other-regarding terms like protecting others from harm or fulfilling a sense of duty to safeguard the weak. At the same time, women are just as likely as men, and Republicans as likely as Democrats, to hold these protective views; media commentators and political leaders should take caution in suggesting that differences across political parties come down to one side lacking certain character traits.