Has the COVID-19 pandemic caused changes in our personality traits?

  • Major personality traits are considered to remain relatively stable for most of a person’s adult life, but can be influenced by stressful personal events.
  • A recent study found changes in the expression of personality traits during the COVID-19 pandemic in a nationally representative sample.
  • The results suggest that young people were more sensitive to changes in personality traits, showing a decline in conscientiousness, agreeableness and an increase in neuroticism.
  • These results suggest that in addition to stressful personal events, global events such as the COVID-19 pandemic could potentially lead to changes in personality traits.

Previous studies have shown that levels of neuroticism decreased during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. A new study published in PLOS One found that these changes in neuroticism were short-lived and normalized later in the pandemic in 2021-2022.

However, other personality traits such as agreeableness, openness, extroversion, and conscientiousness declined during the later stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021-2022.

The study found that younger people were particularly susceptible to changes in personality traits during the pandemic, suggesting a disruption in the process of personality development and maturation that normally occurs in early adulthood.

Medical News Today spoke with Dr. Brent Roberts, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“It is quite important from a theoretical point of view to know that world events, like the pandemic, could have the effect of changing the personality, which is often considered to be fixed and impervious to change,” said Dr. Roberts.

“It also has potential pragmatic value, because from an epidemiological point of view, the long-term changes, being somewhat negative and centered on young adults, would mean that these cohorts would be more vulnerable to mental and physical health problems. purely due to psychological issues, not physiological reasons,” he explained.

The five factor personality model is a widely used model that describes personality based on the presence of five major traits. The model includes the following five personality traits:

  • Extroversion – a tendency towards extroverted, forceful and assertive behaviors
  • Neuroticism – a tendency towards persistent and excessive pessimism and anxiety
  • Conscientious – a tendency to be organized, self-disciplined, responsible and hardworking
  • Agreeableness – a tendency to be empathetic, friendly, compliant and trustworthy
  • Openness – a tendency to be curious, imaginative and open-minded

These personality traits remain relatively stable over an adult’s lifetime and are generally unaffected by personal experience. Previous studies have shown that individuals show a slight change in personality traits with age. Specifically, conscientiousness and agreeableness tend to gradually increase with age, while neuroticism, openness, and extroversion tend to decrease.

Although considered generally stable, stressful or traumatic personal events can influence these personality traits. In contrast, studies examining the impact of collective stressful events, such as the 2011 earthquake in New Zealand or Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana, have shown a lack of change in personality traits in response to these events.

The COVID-19 pandemic is distinguished from other natural disasters by its global impact and its influence on all aspects of life. Previous studies have shown a decline of neuroticism during the early or acute stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that many people with generally higher levels of anxiety – associated with neuroticism – experienced lower levels of anxiety during of the early phase of the pandemic.

However, there is limited and conflicting evidence on the impact of the pandemic on other personality traits. Additionally, there is limited data on the impact of the pandemic on personality traits beyond 2020.

The present study used data from the Understanding America Study (UAS) to examine the impact of the early and later stages of the COVID-19 pandemic on the personality traits of a large and diverse population. The UAS is made up of an internet panel of approximately 9,500 individuals representative of the national population. The UAS has administered several internet-based personality assessments to registered participants since its inception in 2014.

In the current study, the researchers categorized the period encompassing the pandemic into the acute phase covering the period between March 1, 2020 and December 31, 2020, and the adaptation phase covering the period between January 1, 2021 and February 16. 2022 The study included 7,109 UAS participants who had completed at least one personality assessment before the pandemic and another assessment during the acute or adaptation phase of the pandemic.

Compared to pre-pandemic levels, the researchers found that neuroticism decreased during the acute phase of the pandemic in 2020. This decline in neuroticism levels, however, was not sustained during the later adaptation phase in 2021 -2022, with levels of neuroticism in the adaptation phase being similar to those seen before the pandemic.

The other four personality traits showed an opposite trend to that seen with neuroticism. Levels of conscientiousness, agreeableness, openness, and extroversion during the acute phase of the pandemic did not differ from their pre-pandemic levels. In contrast, levels of all four traits have declined in 2021-2022 from their pre-pandemic levels.

Notably, the changes in the expression of these personality traits were similar to those normally seen over a decade of adulthood. The researchers noted that further research is needed to determine whether the changes in personality traits observed in 2021-2022 were long-lasting and to assess potential longer-term outcomes.

The researchers then analyzed the data to examine changes in personality traits among different age and ethnic/racial groups.

The researchers found the highest levels of decline in neuroticism in 2020 among participants aged 65 and over, followed by middle-aged individuals (30-64). However, the decline in neuroticism in young participants under the age of 30 did not reach significance during the acute phase.

Interestingly, young adults showed higher levels of neuroticism in 2021-2022 than before the pandemic. Although levels of the remaining four personality traits were lower in 2021-22 among younger and middle-aged participants, the decline in agreeableness and conscientiousness was deeper among younger participants. In contrast, levels of agreeableness, conscientiousness, extroversion, and openness among older adults in 2021-2022 were similar to pre-pandemic levels.

These data suggest that young adults were more sensitive to changes in personality traits than their middle-aged and older counterparts. The personality of the elderly, on the other hand, seemed more resistant to the effects of the pandemic.

The study’s lead author, Florida State University professor Dr. Angelina Sutin, noted:

“The traits that have changed the most in young adults – neuroticism and conscientiousness – are also the traits that are associated with many important outcomes, including academic and career success, relationships, and mental and physical health. were relatively small, but the cumulative impact could be significant if the changes persist.

Personality traits tend to consolidate in early adulthood as an individual’s personality develops and matures. This could potentially explain why young adults were more vulnerable to changes in personality traits in response to the pandemic. Another reason for these findings could be that the sources of stress (such as work- or school-related stress) associated with the pandemic may have been different for each age group.

Among ethnic/racial groups, the impact of the pandemic on the personality traits of Hispanic/Latino participants diverged from that seen among non-Hispanic/Latino participants. For example, Hispanic/Latino participants showed greater decreases in extroversion, conscientiousness, and openness than their non-Hispanic/Latino counterparts in 2021-2022. Researchers believe that Hispanic/Latino participants may have experienced higher levels of stress due to working outside the home and increased risk of COVID-19.

The study authors cautioned that the study had some limitations. They pointed out that the number of participants from ethnic/minority groups was relatively low, which could have hampered the identification of changes in the personality traits of these groups.

“The participants all lived in the United States, so it’s unclear whether the patterns we found using this sample would generalize to people living in other countries,” Dr. Sutin said. “Furthermore, we could only demonstrate the change, not the reasons for the change. We also could not say whether the changes are temporary or long-lasting. More personality assessments are needed to answer this question.

Dr Roberts also noted: ‘This is an observational study with no control group, so we cannot infer from this study that the pandemic caused these changes. Additionally, the authors did not examine potential alternative explanations for these changes during this time window. The pandemic, while unique and pervasive, was not the only change in the United States during this time window. There were upheavals on the social, political, and economic fronts that could also have affected personality development during this time, especially among young adults who seemed to change the most.

“Finally, the authors did not directly test whether the COVID-19 experience itself could explain the results. Given the possibility that many participants suffered not just from COVID-19 but from long Covid, it would be prudent to test whether this experiment itself could explain the results,” he added.

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