Although personalities tend to be largely consistent throughout people's lives, the stress of the pandemic has led to significant changes in personality traits across the U.S. population, which could have a long-term impact on people's health and behaviors, according to a new study published in PLOS One.
How the pandemic has changed our personalities
According to NPR, major personality traits tend to remain fairly stable throughout life, with most changes occurring during young adulthood or after stressful personal life events. As a whole, population-wide personality changes are rare, even after widespread stressful events.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic may have changed this. Previously, a study found that Americans experienced a decrease in neuroticism, a personality trait associated with negative emotions and stress, during the early days of the pandemic.
Now, a new study from the same researchers published in PLOS One found that Americans' personality traits continued to change in the second and third years of the pandemic, with the changes being especially pronounced among young adults.
"There was a completely different pattern of change" during the later years of the pandemic, said Angelina Sutin, an assistant professor of behavioral sciences and social medicine at the Florida State University College of Medicine and one of the study's authors.
For the study, Sutin and her colleagues analyzed 18,623 survey responses from 7,109 participants who were part of the University of Southern California's longitudinal Understanding America Study. Survey responses were collected at three time points: before March 2020 (pre-pandemic), early 2020 during the lockdown period, and once in 2021 or 2022.
The surveys assessed personality traits using the Big Five Inventory, which measures five different areas of personality, including:
- Neuroticism (stress)
- Extroversion (connecting with others)
- Openness (creative thinking)
- Agreeableness (being trusting)
- Conscientiousness (being organized, responsible, and disciplined)
Overall, the researchers found that extroversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness declined across the population between the early lockdown days of the pandemic in 2020 and the second and third years of the pandemic in 2021 and 2022. These declines were especially pronounced among younger adults, who also saw an increase in neuroticism.
According to Sutin, Americans' personalities may have changed as public opinion about the pandemic shifted over time. "The first year (of the pandemic) there was this real coming together," she said. "But in the second year, with all of that support falling away and then the open hostility and social upheaval around restrictions ... all the collective good will that we had, we lost, and that might have been very significant for personality."
Over time, these personality changes may negatively impact individuals' health and lives, the researchers wrote. For example, a decline in conscientiousness, particularly among young adults, may affect their educational achievement, income, and risk of chronic illnesses. In addition, an increase in neuroticism has been associated with risky health behaviors and poor mental health outcomes.
According to Joshua Jackson, an associate professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, who was not involved in the study, the fact that these personality changes were observed across the population underscore how unprecedented the pandemic has been.
"The general rule is that life events don't have widespread impact on personality," Jackson said. Although the personality changes found in the study were not huge, they were equal to the change that would usually be seen in a decade of life and were consistent across race and education level.
In addition, Brent Roberts, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who was also not involved in the study, said that with population-level changes in these personality areas, "there's going to be a slight elevation of some of the negative outcomes ... predominantly related to mental health and [physical] health."
Will these personality changes last or are they just 'short-term shock'?
Jackson noted that more research is needed to determine whether these personality changes will last long-term or are more of a "short-term shock." It is also not clear whether the pandemic was the primary cause of these changes since a control group was not included.
According to Roberts, economic stress, along with "long-term disparities that are occurring in our society" could also be an "alternative for why you see this subtle decrease in these kinds of personality traits that are often related to feeling connected to and effective in society."
Overall, Roberts said the primary takeaway of the study is that "personality, while more consistent than changing, is not fixed and can respond to changes in the environment."
"In other words, (people) are not crazy, it's been a hard few years on all of us," Roberts said. "So much so that there has even been a small effect on our personalities." (Mertens, "Shots," NPR, 10/5; Sutin et al., PLOS One, 9/28; Holcombe, CNN, 9/28)