People who do not comply with Covid-19 pandemic restrictions are mostly male, more extroverted and more likely to put their own self-interests above those of others, suggests a new study of behaviours internationally.

University of Sydney researchers assessed behaviours and attitudes towards Covid regulations in 1,575 people in Australia, Canada, the UK, and the US between April and May last year, during the first wave of the pandemic.

Their study, published in the journal Plos One, found that about 10% of people reported being non-compliant with restrictions. These individuals were less agreeable in personality and were also less open to new experiences.

Sabina Kleitman, an associate professor at the University of Sydney and the study’s lead author, said non-compliance rates were fairly consistent across the four countries. “Ten per cent is a huge number in the context of a pandemic,” she said.

Of women surveyed, 92% reported compliance with regulations, compared to 86% of men.

Non-compliers reported being more likely to leave their home to meet friends or family, for religious reasons, because they were bored, or because they wanted to exercise their right to freedom.

“These four reasons … I think they contribute majorly to what is happening to us now [in Australia],” Kleitman said, as in the case of inter-household transmission of Covid as well as the anti-lockdown protests in Sydney last weekend.

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The researchers suggest that people who comply with regulations are better informed about Covid-19, as they “reported greater use of official government and health information sources than the non-compliant group”. Non-compliers “tend to check the actual legitimacy of a source less,” said Kleitman. “They [also] tend not to trust official sources and I think that’s a bit of a worry.”

People who complied with restrictions were more likely to cope positively using strategies including self-distraction, while rule flouters tended to resort to “denial, substance use, and behavioural disengagement”, the researchers found.

Rule-breakers also had lower measures of “openness/intellect”, a trait the researchers defined as the tendency to seek out novel experiences, and which is distinct from intelligence.

“It is an interesting picture emerging,” said Kleitman. “Especially when we take into account intellect – the predisposition to look for new ideas – people who are not compliant might find it difficult to look for new ways of adapting.”

The non-compliant group was also more likely to perceive restrictions as a threat to individual freedoms.

Because the study was conducted during the first wave of Covid-19, the researchers note that compliance rates may have changed as the pandemic has drawn on and people might have become more complacent.

Kleitman said the study showed the need for targeted public health measures to improve compliance. Because non-compliers are more likely to disregard moral obligations to others, targeted messaging to that minority may be useful. “I think we need to channel that self-interest back,” Kleitman said.

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“Maybe the message to them should be how it benefits them: you’re not going to infect yourself and your loved ones. It’s not only good for society, exercising your moral responsibility, it’s good for you.”

Other measures such as education about how to identify misinformation, or by directing messaging through a variety of digital platforms, could also be beneficial.

“The support which the government provides for people who are losing their livelihood is very important to allow people to comply,” Kleitman added.