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The pandemic made us more neurotic, less agreeable

Since early in the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers have been interested in how peoples’ mental health has been affected. Many studies have focused on the incidence of depression and anxiety, and how they may have changed in response to the coronavirus crisis. However, in addition to impacting aspects of mental well-being, the pandemic may have altered the way we think, feel and behave. It may indeed have generated changes in our personalities. 

Angelina Sutin of Florida State University College of Medicine and colleagues decided to investigate this using longitudinal assessments of personality from 7,109 people enrolled in the online Understanding America Study. In the past, research studies have generally found no associations between collective stressful events, such as earthquakes and hurricanes, and personality change. In fact, personality has been considered to be rather impervious in the face of environmental stressors during adulthood. 

The researchers used the five-factor model of personality that considers psychological function along five broad dimensions: neuroticism (the tendency to experience negative emotions and vulnerability to stress), extraversion (the tendency to be talkative and outgoing), openness (the tendency to be creative and unconventional), agreeableness (the tendency to be trusting and straightforward), and conscientiousness (the tendency to be organized, disciplined and responsible). 

There is a long-standing hypothesis that although personal experience of stressful events may lead to personality changes, collective stressful events do not have the same effect. The coronavirus pandemic presented a unique opportunity to assess whether a global stressful event, experienced by the world’s entire population, may have altered the trajectory of personality across the United States, especially in younger adults.

The researchers compared pre-pandemic (May 2014–February 2020) measurements of these personality traits with those in early (March–December 2020) and later (2021–2022) pandemic times. A total of 18,623 assessments, or a mean of 2.62 per participant, were analyzed. Participants were 41.2 percent male and ranged in age from 18 to 109. The results are published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

The data showed that, while there were few changes between pre-pandemic and 2020 personality traits, there were noticeable changes in the 2021–2022 measurements. The data showed decreases in extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness, and an increase in neuroticism, when the 2021–2022 data were compared with pre-pandemic data. The changes represented about one-tenth of a standard deviation, which is equivalent to about one decade of normative personality change. 

Younger adults showed the most noticeable changes in personality, in particular in terms of increased neuroticism and decreased agreeableness and conscientiousness. The oldest adults, in contrast, showed no statistically significant changes in traits.

The researchers conclude that if these changes are enduring, it suggests that population-wide stressful events can bend the trajectory of personality slightly, especially in younger adults.

“There was limited personality change early in the pandemic but striking changes starting in 2021. Of most note, the personality of young adults changed the most, with marked increases in neuroticism and declines in agreeableness and conscientiousness. That is, younger adults became moodier and more prone to stress, less cooperative and trusting, and less restrained and responsible.”

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By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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