Story at a glance
- New research details the extent to which COVID-19 has changed individuals’ personalities.
- The changes were greatest among youth and Hispanic/Latino individuals.
- The decrease in certain traits was equivalent to the normal personality changes seen over a decade.
Thousands of Americans experienced shifts in personality traits such as extraversion, agreeableness, openness and conscientiousness between pre-pandemic times and 2022, according to the results of a new study. The trend was particularly pronounced in younger adults.
In the past, it was believed that personality traits were relatively impervious to environmental changes and stresses. But writing in the magazine PLUS ONEIf changes persist, the researchers explain, it appears that “population-wide stressful events can deviate slightly in the personality trajectory, especially in younger adults.”
Compared to older adults, younger adult personalities are more likely to develop and develop at this point in adulthood. Additional factors such as job market instability and school-related stress can affect younger adults more.
Remarkably, the authors said, “Remarkably, younger adults showed disturbed maturation in that they increased neuroticism and decreased agreeableness and conscientiousness,” while “the slight decrease in neuroticism early in the epidemic was short-lived and deleterious changes in other traits emerged over time.”
In other words, young people tend to become moodier, more prone to stress, and less cooperative and confident. They also became less conservative and responsible.
These slight declines were equivalent to nearly a decade of personality changes a person would normally go through.
The findings come as scientists around the world work to understand the lasting psychological effects of COVID-19, which has claimed more than 6 million lives around the world and continues to take Hundreds of American Lives every day.
Differences in personality traits were also observed among Hispanic/Latino participants, as these individuals did not experience a decrease in neuroticism, and personality shifts occurred at different time points compared to the others. This community also experienced a greater decrease in extraversion, openness, and conscientiousness in 2021-2022 compared to non-Hispanic/Latino participants.
Although personal stressful events may alter an individual’s personality, previous research has generally found no association between mass crises such as earthquakes and hurricanes and personality changes, underscoring the unique nature of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To conduct the study, researchers analyzed more than 18,000 assessments from 7,109 participants in the Understanding America study. Pre-pandemic results (May 2014-February 2020) were compared with responses collected earlier in the pandemic (March-December 2020) and thereafter (2021-2022), to see how personalities have changed over time.
In 2020, the data showed a slight decrease in neuroticism compared to pre-pandemic levels. There were no changes in extraversion, openness, acceptability, or conscientiousness.
However, the 2021-2022 results showed no significant change in neuroticism compared to pre-pandemic levels among all populations studied, but a slight marked decrease in extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, the authors wrote.
The data also showed that the 2020 decrease in neuroticism was greater for older adults, but the decrease in the other four traits in 2021 was seen in middle-aged and young adults.
The lower rates of neuroticism among the elderly could be the result of increased messages urging people to pay attention to their mental health and reach this isolated population. Early in the pandemic, there was also a growing sense of social cohesion, as people worked together to stop the spread of COVID-19.
But as the crisis dragged on into 2021 and 2022, the decline in social support and increased conflict over pandemic protection measures may have contributed to the personal changes seen at that time.
The majority of individuals evaluated were female and all ranged in age from 18 to 109. Although results varied by age, no changes were shown based on race or educational level.