Individual attitudes and the COVID-19 response

This blog post is based on preliminary results from our survey. These results over-represent highly educated and high income individuals, white and Asian respondents, and people who work from home or don’t commute by car. We are currently conducting a survey with a nationally representative sample and will be reporting results here soon. In this series of blog posts, we are highlighting results that are valuable even though they are not collected from a representative sample.

Attitudes in our survey

In recent years, transportation researchers have increasingly begun to collect attitudinal data in their surveys to account for person-to-person variation in personality, preferences, and interests. These data may ask about anything from an individual’s perception of the convenience of various transport modes to their concerns about national security. Our survey incorporated a series of 39 attitudinal questions, which broadly sorted our respondents into five basic personality types.

  • Suburban office lovers are identified by their aversion to an urban environmental lifestyle and unwillingness to work from home. While they do not prefer to telecommute, they do enjoy online shopping.
  • The unconcerned are defined exclusively by being untroubled by COVID-19, a metric on which they differ vastly from all other groups.
  • Urban shoppers display an affinity for city living and prefer to be in-person for activities such as working and shopping.
  • Videoconferencers are enthusiastic about using online platforms for learning, working, and socializing. After suburban office lovers, they are the most introverted group.
  • Work-from-home extroverts are outgoing respondents with a love for working from home and shopping online – although they do not enjoy videoconferences as much as the above group.

A respondent’s membership in one of the five personality classes has a surprising impact on their choices and expectations for the future. Here, we discuss three key attributes that have important effects on behavior: membership in the suburban office lover personality group, membership in the unconcerned personality group, and an affinity for in-person activity (expressed by membership in either the suburban office lover or urban shopper personality group).

Suburban office lovers

One important difference between suburban office lovers and other groups is in intention to walk or bike after the pandemic. Collectively referred to as “active travel,” walking and biking are experiencing a revitalization during the pandemic, and many respondents are expecting to increase their active travel after the pandemic passes.

Suburban office lovers are an exception to this trend. Before the pandemic, they were the only personality type for which less than 40% were frequent walkers and less than 10% were frequent bikers. Among the vast majority of suburban office lovers who use active travel modes infrequently, very low percentages intend to increase their use of them in the future: 8.2% and 8.3% for walking and biking, respectively. Among infrequent active travelers in all other personality groups, at least 19.1% expect to increase their walking and 16.4% expect to increase their biking after the pandemic.

One hypothesis is that suburban office lovers’ lack of enthusiasm for active travel is partially mediated through residential choices. This personality group is defined by their affinity for suburban environments, which are generally less suited to biking due to their low density. Thus, individuals with this personality type may find active travel poorly suited to their needs because of where they chose to live (a choice that may or may not have been made for travel-related reasons). Regardless of the factors contributing to low adoption of active travel among suburban office lovers, this trend has important implications for the environment and public heath.

The unconcerned

Another group associated with particular behaviors is the unconcerned personality type. These individuals are distinguished by their unbothered attitude towards COVID-19. Consistent with this outlook, their behavior is characterized by a greater degree of comfort with in-person interaction and a willingness to be around strangers. Compared to other groups, unconcerned respondents are more likely to work in person, eat at restaurants, and take public transit (given that they already used transit before the pandemic) in the future. They are also least likely to expect decreases in personal air travel after the pandemic (if they flew regularly before) and less likely than average to increase online shopping.

The behavior of this group is particularly important to public health officials and policymakers. Based on current knowledge of the COVID-19 virus, the majority of public health authorities consider “social distancing” important in preventing disease spread. Since the unconcerned are more optimistic than other personality types about the current state of public health, they pose a unique challenge to policymakers who are encouraging widespread action to reduce coronavirus cases.

The in-person preference

A final attribute that is associated with specific behavior patterns is a liking for in-person activities. Respondents who have this preference generally fall into one of two personality types. Suburban office lovers dislike working from home and hold the most negative view of videoconferencing among all personality types. Like the unconcerned, they are more likely to work in-person both before and after the pandemic. Urban shoppers also score highly on an anti-working from home trait and prefer to shop in person rather than online. They are the least likely of all 5 personality types to increase their online shopping, and, second to the unconcerned, are the most likely to increase their dining in restaurants.

These groups have an interesting relationship to the unconcerned respondents. In some ways, their behavioral patterns are similar, with both unconcerned respondents and lovers of in-person interaction displaying a willingness to be exposed to the general public. However, their motivations are clearly distinct. Unlike the unconcerned, suburban office lovers and urban shoppers are the two personality groups who report the highest level of concern about COVID-19. This level of concern is apparent in their behavior – while they are willing to engage in some higher-risk public outings, these two personality types display more cautious behavior when the incentive of in-person social interaction is not present. Taking transit or flying both involve contact with strangers, but neither one is generally a social experience. While unconcerned respondents who were regular personal flyers and transit users before the pandemic are more enthusiastic than other personality types about resuming use of these modes, suburban office lovers and urban shoppers are not. Their intention to increase or decrease their transit use and personal flying is in line with the expectations of the other personality types (aside from the unconcerned).

In short, while those partial to in-person interaction behave similarly to the unconcerned, their motivations differ greatly. The unconcerned don’t experience the same deterrents against public activities that other respondents do. Meanwhile, suburban office lovers and urban shoppers do feel these disincentives, but at the same time are subject to a uniquely strong, conflicting desire for in-person activities. Their outlook may be preferable to that of the unconcerned from the point of view of public health officials, who can focus their efforts on suggesting high-quality replacements for in-person interaction.

Attitudes matter

From our data, it is clear that examining people’s personalities and opinions is important for understanding their behavior. Notably, people’s attitudes are not correlated with any other characteristics such as their demographics or socioeconomic status. This means that attitudes, and attitudes alone, are able to provide this more detailed understanding of respondents’ behavior.

Aside from being relevant to researchers, attitudinal data are of great importance to policymakers interested in targeting their efforts at certain segments of the population. In the context of recovery from COVID-19, policies can have a much larger impact when tailored to different personality types. For example, efforts to convince urban shoppers to not dine in restaurants would look very different from efforts to encourage similar behavior among the unconcerned. Effectively deploying heterogeneous messaging and policy initiatives is a key capability that attitudinal data allow for. It should be utilized by policymakers as a major component of their COVID-19 response.

%d bloggers like this: