Study finds the pandemic did change personalities, making young adults more neurotic and less self-disciplined
- Personality traits are seen as relatively stable, but stressful events like the COVID pandemic can cause a shift.
- Analysis of personality tests showed a disruption in how people usually mature over time.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have shifted personality on a population-wide scale, especially for young adults in the US, according to a study published today in PLOS ONE.
Adults between the ages of 18 and 30 were, on average, more neurotic and less agreeable and conscientious after living through the first year of the pandemic, based on an analysis of personality assessments conducted before and after 2020.
Researchers analyzed data from the Understanding America study, an online survey of more than 7,000 adults in the US. Participants completed a five-factor personality trait assessment upon enrollment (between 2014 and 2020) and again after COVID-19 kicked off.
The five-factor model is widely used in studies of personality traits as they endure over time. Since the 1980s, psychologists have used five basic dimensions — extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness — to describe personality.
These traits are relatively stable in individuals, but small shifts normally occur throughout the lifespan. People tend to become less sensitive to stress, less open and extroverted, and more agreeable and self-disciplined as they mature, lead author Angelina Sutin told Insider.
"It's a very gradual change over time," said Sutin, a professor at the Florida State University College of Medicine. "Somebody is not going to go from a raging extrovert to an introvert over a short period of time."
However, that change seemed to accelerate during the pandemic, resulting in a shift equivalent to about one decade of normative personality change in just a couple of years. That shift was especially pronounced in young people, and researchers are concerned about what the trend may mean for that age group going forward.
Neuroticism rose most among young adults
Researchers observed relatively few changes in population-wide personality between pre-pandemic and 2020 assessments. But data from 2021–2022 showed small shifts in extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.
Neuroticism, the personality trait most closely associated with anxiety and depression, appeared to decline slightly in 2020, only to remain stable in the second year of the pandemic. But when the researchers looked at the data by age group, they found a significant increase in neuroticism for young adults.
Sutin said she was initially surprised to see a decline in neuroticism, given the stress and fear associated with the pandemic. The oldest adults surveyed had the lowest self-reported scores for neuroticism, even though they were the most isolated and at-risk for severe illness.
People tend to become less neurotic with age, and the sense of community and togetherness may have helped folks manage feelings of emotional instability early on in the pandemic, Sutin said.
Stressful events may 'bend the trajectory of personality' in young adults
Younger adults, however, experienced a departure from the average personality trends. Not only did they see themselves, on average, as more neurotic post-2020, but they also scored themselves lower on conscientiousness, a trait associated with self-discipline and impulse control.
Both traits are associated with important long-term outcomes, Sutin said.
"Neuroticism is a consistent predictor of poor mental health outcomes, things like depression and anxiety," she said. "Conscientiousness is really important for educational and work outcomes, and for relationships and physical health."
This shift is concerning, especially when taken in context with the mental health crisis affecting teens and young adults, she added. Now that researchers have documented this change in personality, the next steps will be observing and addressing the downstream implications of this "disrupted maturity" in young people during the pandemic.
- From cheaper smartphones to 100 5G labs, here are the top tech announcements in Budget 2023-24
- Income tax bonanza, capex push to green energy: Budget 2023 summarised
- Budget proposes hike in TCS on overseas travel, fund remittances out of India to 20%
- Life insurance stocks fall up to 10% after Budget pushes for new tax regime
- Budget blow to HNIs claiming huge deductions for expensive houses