A research has shown that the impact of the Covid pandemic may have been so deep that it altered people’s personalities.
Previously psychologists have failed to find a link between collective stressful events, such as earthquakes or hurricanes, and personality change. However, something about the losses experienced or simply the long grind of social isolation appears to have made an impact.
“Younger adults became moodier and more prone to stress, less cooperative and trusting, and less restrained and responsible,” according to the authors of the study, led by Prof Angelina Sutin of Florida State University College of Medicine.
Sutin and colleagues used assessments of personality from 7,109 people enrolled in the online Understanding America Study that had been repeated at various times before and during the pandemic. Participants were given a widely used personality test that measures five traits – neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness.
Participants, aged 18 to 109, took the tests pre-pandemic, early and later in the pandemic, with an average of three tests per participant.
During the first phase of the pandemic (March to December 2020), personality was relatively stable, with only a small decline in neuroticism compared with pre-pandemic. This could be down to Covid “providing a reason” for feelings of anxiety and making it less likely for people to blame their own disposition, the authors suggested.
The reduction in neuroticism had disappeared by the second half of the pandemic (2021-2022), the study suggested, and was replaced by declines in extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness compared to pre-pandemic personality. The changes were about one-tenth of a standard deviation, equivalent to the size of fluctuation typically seen over a decade of life. Younger adults showed the biggest changes and the oldest group of adults had no significant changes in traits.
According to the authors, personality tends to be more malleable in younger adults and the pandemic may have also had a more negative impact on this age group.
“Although the pandemic was stressful for everyone, it disrupted the normative tasks of younger adulthood, such as school and the transition into the workforce and being sociable and developing relationships,” said Sutin. “It is speculative because we did not measure reasons for the change, but this disruption may have had a larger impact on younger adults because these tasks are very important for this age group.”
The researchers will continue monitoring the cohort to see whether the personality shifts are temporary or more enduring.
“It’s interesting to see this average effect, despite the fact that people must deal with the things going on quite differently,” said Prof Wiebke Bleidorn, a psychologist at the University of Zurich, who was not involved in the research. “One interpretation is that not having the normal formative experiences put development on hold. It will be interesting to see if … these traits bounce back.”