When the COVID-19 pandemic began, it changed everything. Work moved from the office to the home, socializing with friends meant hopping on a Zoom call, and even going outside for groceries could put your health at risk.
Now, a new study is suggesting that the pandemic also changed our personalities.
The study, published in PLOS One, measured changes in the Big Five traits, a common tool used by researchers to analyze personality. The traits are neuroticism, extroversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness. Past research indicates that as people mature into adulthood, they become less extroverted, neurotic and open but become more agreeable and conscientious.
The pandemic presented researchers with the opportunity to study how collective stress can impact a person’s personality. They analyzed survey results from over 7,100 U.S. adults aged 18 to 109 taken during 2020, 2021 and 2022, and compared them to years before the pandemic.
During 2020, analysis of the surveys found that peoples’ personalities were relatively consistent, but researchers found significant changes during the 2021-2022 period.
Adults aged 18 to 64 became less extroverted, agreeable and conscientious in 2021 and 2022, and adults under 30 in particular become more neurotic during that period. This degree of change, the researchers said, is roughly equivalent to a decade’s worth of personality changes.
“Becoming more mature is declining in neuroticism and increasing in agreeableness and conscientiousness, and we see the opposite for younger adults in the second year of the pandemic,” said Angelina Sutin, the lead author of the study and a Florida State University professor, in an interview.
These personality shifts have researchers worried because they may have adverse effects on the personal lives and mental health of young adults. Conscientiousness is important for forming good relationships and working well with others is a major factor in succeeding in the workplace and at school. Sutin says that neuroticism “is a very consistent predictor of mental health outcomes like depression and anxiety.”
Given that young adults are becoming less conscientious and more neurotic, these results suggest that they may struggle more in academic and work settings and may face worse mental health outcomes — which has already been observed in previous studies.
For adults over the age of 65, no significant personality changes were found during the pandemic. This may be because older adults have a more concrete sense of their identities, which are less susceptible to change in the face of adverse circumstances.
“Personality is less stable in young adults,” Sutin told CNN. “But then at the same time, the pandemic disrupted what young adults are supposed to be doing. They’re supposed to be in school or starting their careers or transitioning into careers. They’re supposed to be going out and forming relationships.”
As to why adult personalities were relatively unchanged in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic began, Sutin posited that “early on in the pandemic, there was this emphasis on coming together and working together and supporting each other.”
“That’s something that kind of fell apart in the second year,” she said.
One question left on researchers’ minds is whether adults will revert back to their pre-pandemic personalities after the impacts of COVID-19 are over.
“We captured these traits at one moment in time, so we don’t know whether these are lasting changes or whether they’re temporary,” Sutin said.
There is also the possibility that these personality changes were not a consequence of the pandemic at all — and that something different caused peoples’ personalities to change during 2021 and 2022. What is certain, though, is that we will still be grappling with the social impacts of the pandemic for years to come, whether it affected our psyches or not.
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