The global coronavirus pandemic has disrupted almost everything in our lives, from the way we work and go to school, to the way we socialize (Zoom happy hours, anyone?!), and ultimately put to rough tests trust in many of the global systems on which we depend, from health care to government.
New research suggests it may also have changed the personality of Americans, and not for the better.
Typically, major personality traits remain fairly stable throughout life, with most changes occurring in early adulthood or when stressful personal events occur. It is rare to see population-wide personality changes, even after stressful events, but in a new study in the journal PLOS One, psychologists discovered exactly that in the wake of the pandemic.
The researchers had previously uncovered a counterintuitive small change in personality early in the pandemic: They saw a decrease in neuroticism, the personality trait associated with stress and negative emotions. In the current study, they were curious if they would find different personality changes in the second and third year of the pandemic.
“And we did. There was a completely different pattern of change,” says study author Angelina Sutinassistant professor of behavioral sciences and social medicine at Florida State University College of Medicine.
Over the past period of the pandemic, researchers have noted a significant decline in traits that help us navigate social situations, trust others, think creatively, and act responsibly. These changes were particularly pronounced in young adults.
Sutin speculates that personality traits may have changed as public sentiment about the pandemic changed. “The first year [of the pandemic] there was this real rapprochement,” says Sutin. “But in the second year, with all that support that crumbled, and then the open hostility and social upheaval around the restrictions…all the goodwill collective that we had, we lost it, and that could have been very important for the personality.”
To measure the changes, Sutin and his team analyzed surveys from three time periods: once before the pandemic, before March 2020, once at the start of the lockdown period in 2020, and once in 2021 or 2022. All responses came from longitudinal analysis. Understanding America Studyhosted by the University of Southern California.
The surveys gathered results from a widely accepted model of personality study, the Big Five Inventory, which measures five different dimensions of personality: neuroticism (stress), extraversion (connection with others), openness (creative thinking), agreeableness (trusting), and conscientiousness (being organized, disciplined and responsible).
Although these traits do not usually change drastically over a lifetime, there is a general tendency for young people to see a decrease in neuroticism as they mature, and an increase in agreeableness and conscientiousness. Sutin calls this trajectory “the development towards maturity”. But the study results suggest a reversal of that pattern for young adults as the pandemic drags on.
Between the early stages of the pandemic lockdown in 2020 and the second and third years of the pandemic in 2021 and 2022, researchers found that extroversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness all declined in the population , but especially in young adults, who also showed a increase in neuroticism.
Joshua Jacksonassociate professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, who studies the factors responsible for personality change and was not involved in this study, says the finding was significant.
“Younger individuals have fewer resources, they are less grounded in their social context, in their work and their friends,” he says. “So any kind of disruption, they’re the ones who will have that lesser resource to ride out the storm.”
Sutin notes that even in more normal times, young adults are more likely to see a change in their personality. But during the pandemic, “all the normal things that young adults are supposed to do have been disrupted: school, socializing, work.” Although older people were more at risk from the virus, their lives were “in a much more stable place in general,” Sutin says.
These particular personality changes in young people also have the potential for long-term negative impacts, Jackson says. “[Agreeableness and conscientiousness] are characteristics associated with success in the job market and in relationships,” he says.
The study authors agree, writing that higher conscientiousness is associated with higher academic achievement and income and a lower risk of chronic disease. Neuroticism is linked to health risk behaviors and poor mental health.
Long-term personality change or “short-term shock”
The personality changes documented weren’t huge, but they were equal to the typical amount of personality change normally found over a decade of life, and they were seen across race and level. of education.
Jackson says the fact that the results were seen across the general population shows how unprecedented the pandemic has been.
“The general rule is that life events don’t have a generalized impact on personality,” he says. For this reason, Jackson hopes that further study will determine whether the personality changes uncovered by this study will be sustained throughout life or be more of a “short-term shock.”
It should be noted that the changes are relatively modest in scope, says brent roberta psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who studies personality continuity and change in adulthood, and also was not involved in the study.
With personality change in the population in these domains, “there will be a slight elevation in some of the negative outcomes…mostly related to mental health and health,” Roberts says.
And while the results are significant at the population level, they are unlikely to be cause for individual alarm. So before blaming your bad mood on the pandemic, remember that personalities are generally resilient in the long run.
“It’s not just about people being fixed and not changing at all, which is clearly wrong, or being rudderless ships battered by the winds of change – it’s something in between,” explains Roberts. Overall, the environmental changes we’ve experienced over the past few years are probably not permanent either, which means the psychological consequences could very well change again as well.
The study had some limitations. For one thing, there was no control group to compare the results to — there wasn’t a group of people who didn’t experience the pandemic for comparison in this case. And Roberts says it’s hard to pinpoint what, exactly, over the past few years has had the biggest impact on these personality changes.
The COVID crisis might have been the primary driver of personality change, but other societal shifts or reckonings we’ve experienced over the same period – the massive shift to virtual school and work, increased economic stratification , the insurrection at the US Capitol or the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, for example.
Or it could be related to economic stress and the “long-term disparities that are happening in our society,” Roberts says.
“It’s pretty clear from many surveys, especially young people have much less hope for their future economic viability. … And if that’s the case, then there’s your alternative as to why you’re seeing this subtle decrease in these types of personality traits that are often linked to feeling connected and effective in society.”
And maybe the results are the result of more than one thing at a time. The other group that showed significant change in personality traits, for example, were Hispanic/Latino respondents, who, Sutin points out, have felt the brunt of the pandemic in more ways than one, “both in terms of vulnerability to disease and more serious consequences of also being on the front line [as essential workers].”
One or the other, or both, could have weighed on the personality of the population.
Maggie Mertens is a freelance journalist in Seattle who writes about gender, culture, health and sports.