Research group with Jason Rentfrow
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How are different personalities responding to COVID-19?

As almost 3 billion people around the world live under, or are starting to emerge from, a form of lockdown due to the coronavirus crisis. Fitzwilliam Fellow Dr Jason Rentfrow is looking at how responses to the lockdown around the world might be related to personality.

Jason’s group – the Cambridge Personality and Social Dynamics Research Group – investigates geographical variation in personality and focuses on how environmental factors influence people’s personalities and vice versa. The pandemic has offered a new opportunity to discover how different responses to the crisis might be understood in terms of distinct personality traits in different regions. The team, working with colleagues at universities in Europe, North America and Australasia, will look at Google search trends, which will then be mapped into different domains – health-related, information-seeking, and so on. The topics that are commonly searched in Google will then be evaluated in relation to the personality characteristics of regions.

Jason says: “We expect there to be more associations between characteristics such as anxiety and fear, and searches related to COVID symptoms. We might expect conscientiousness to be related to more proactive searches, of things people may be able to do to protect themselves and others.”

Extraversion and agreeableness might be related to searches about ways to maintain social relationships remotely, for example, or even recreational activities like baking at home.

By logical extension, the research hopes to measure to what extent search trends might be related to compliance with social distancing measures implemented by governments and, potentially, the incidence rate and mortality rate of COVID-19.

Jason asks: “Could it be that in those places where there are more searches related to proactive steps people can take to reduce the spread of COVID, like ‘how to make a facemask’ or ‘how to wash your hands’, there is higher compliance with government rules and advice about social distancing?

“There are multiple data sources available that can provide hints about the extent to which people are adhering to social distancing guidelines. For example, mobile phone data is one useful proxy for compliance. Some social media platforms, like Facebook, are also sharing aggregate information about mobility within regions.”

The group is gathering data currently, and hoping to see some initial results in the next four to six weeks.

Jason says: “It’s the sort of project where it’s inevitable that we’re going to find something that is interesting. I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll find something that can inform our understanding of how and why people in different places are reacting differently to the lockdown.”

And as a psychologist, what might be the effect of lockdown on our mental health?

Jason says: “I’m sure that certain people are going to be struggling with being starved of social contact. I can imagine there will be more issues related to depression through not having as much social contact. There is a lot of research showing that social contact, even for people who are more introverted, boosts wellbeing and mood.”

Results on the study will be reported in the coming months. See the Cambridge Personality and Social Dynamics Research Group for more details.

Jason Rentfrow

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