Aug 11, 2020 - Research

Social Distancing during COVID-19 — Who, When, Where

By Daniella Coker, MPH, Scientist at 23andMe*

23andMe’s research into COVID-19 reveals that amid the pandemic between April and June, adherence to social distancing measures waned, echoing findings from other researchers. But in July as COVID cases spiked, more people heeded public health recommendations about distancing.

After taking into consideration a range of factors, certain personality types are more (or less) likely to practice social distancing.

Key Findings

• Highly extraverted people are less likely to practice social distancing.

• People who are highly agreeable or open to experience are more likely to practice social distancing.

• Adherence to social distancing decreased between April and June but has since begun to increase.

• Older people were more likely than younger people to practice social distancing.

These are just a couple of the dozens of new findings 23andMe scientists have discovered looking at data from more than 1,000,000 people who are participating in 23andMe’s COVID-19 research study. Since the study’s launch in April, 23andMe has released a range of findings from the data, including that O blood type appears to be protective against susceptibility for COVID-19 and that physical activity has decreased since shelter-in-place orders began.

23andMe’s COVID-19 research study presented an opportunity to also understand social distancing behavior within our research participants – Who is social distancing? Where are people social distancing more or less? How has adherence changed over the course of this pandemic?

Geography and Social Distancing

Adherence differs greatly from state to state, but between April and June in most states, adherence to social distancing decreased. Adherence was generally lowest in Mountain states and Southern states, where the proportion of study participants who practiced social distancing decreased from 84-89 percent in April to as low as 78 percent June. Even in states on the West Coast and in the Northeast, where compliance with social distancing was among the highest in the country, compliance decreased from 91-93 percent in April to approximately 88 percent by June.

However, our data shows that between June and July, adherence to social distancing began to increase across the country, potentially in response to the resurgence of infections during this time.

Age and Social Distancing

Beyond geography, 23andMe data showed that older people, those over 50, were generally more likely than younger people to practice social distancing. In fact, for nearly every 10-year increment in age (e.g., 20-somethings, 30-somethings, etc.), there was an increase in the proportion of individuals who practiced social distancing.

It was also found that in almost all age groups, adherence to social distancing fell from April to June, only to jump back up in July. Yet, even in the youngest groups, the majority of people said they adhered to social distancing rules.

Personality and Social Distancing

Personality traits appear to play a role in adherence. Even after taking into account age, sex, essential worker status, relative zipcode density, and other factors, individuals who are gregarious, adventurous, prone to anger, and/or, friendly were less likely to adhere to social distancing. At the same time, those who were more liberal, artistic, sympathetic, and altruistic were more likely to socially distance. These findings are based on the responses of over 100,000 COVID-19 research participants who had also completed 23andMe survey questions that help assess character traits.

These and other traits can be grouped under one of the “Big Five” personality traits used in the field of psychology.

The above figure is based on Psychology Today’s “Big 5 Personality Traits”

Another way to look at these findings is that highly extraverted people were less likely to socially distance, whereas highly open or agreeable people were more likely to adhere.  1,2

What does personality have to do with it?

There are a couple of possible explanations for these specific findings.

The mandates for social distancing have upended many aspects of our lives, including our ability to physically interact with family and friends. Extraverts are typically highly sociable individuals who “recharge” from being with others; their very nature is at odds with the demands of social distancing, and therefore they may be finding adherence to be particularly challenging. A study in Brazil similarly found that during the first month of the pandemic, higher scores for extraversion were associated with less social distancing.

A couple facets of neuroticism, anger, and vulnerability, were also among those personality traits associated with less social distancing. Research has shown that highly neurotic people tend to use more emotion-focused, rather than problem-focused, approaches for coping with stress. Therefore, perhaps individuals who are prone to anger or feelings of vulnerability are more likely to respond to the stress of the pandemic emotionally, such as by tuning out or defying guidance.

Highly agreeable people tend to focus on the needs of others. Much of the messaging around the pandemic has relied on a sense of community (e.g., “Stay Home. Save Lives”), so perhaps this tone of social responsibility has resonated more closely with this group of people. As for those who are highly open, it may be their tendency for being more receptive to new ideas and comfortable in unfamiliar circumstances that has contributed to an ability to adapt to this new experience of social distancing.

Other studies that have examined associations between personality and social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic have produced similar results. Blagov’s study of U.S adults found that agreeableness and conscientiousness predicted endorsement of social distancing. In addition, a study of Danish participants showed that people who are highly emotional – a facet of openness – were more likely to accept personal restrictions to protect others from the virus.

Social distancing has remained one of society’s primary tools to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Analysis of 23andMe’s more than 1,000,000 COVID-19 study participants has shown that while a majority practice social distancing, differences persist when adherence is examined by age, time, geography, and even personality. Understanding these patterns of behavior can provide insight on how to address social distancing with different segments of the population.

*23andMe’s COVID-19 study is made possible through the participation of more than a million of our customers who consented to answer survey questions for this research. But this study also involves the hard work of a core team of our health researchers, program/product managers, data scientists, engineers and geneticists. Among them are: Michelle Agee, Amanda Altman, Stella Aslibekyan, Adam Auton, Jess Bielenberg, Adrian Chubb, Daniella Coker, Raffaello d’Amore, Scott Dvorak, Alison Fitch, Scott Hadly, Pooja Gandhi, Andy Kill, Trung Le, John Matthews, Jey McCreight, Taylor Morrow, Sungmin Park, Jeff Pollard, Anjali Shastri, Janie Shelton, Teresa Filshtein Sonmez, Jason Tan, Lindsey Tran, Cat Weldon, Chelsea Ye, Yiwen Zheng

**These analyses were limited to 18+-year-old participants in the United States.

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