Between pre-pandemic and 2022, a study of thousands of Americans revealed minor changes in extraversion, agreeableness, openness, and conscientiousness.
According to a recent study by Angelina Sutin of Florida State University College of Medicine and colleagues, the COVID-19 pandemic may have changed the trajectory of personality across the United States, especially in younger adults, despite the long-held belief that personality traits are largely impervious to environmental pressures.
The study was recently published in the journal PLOS ONE.
In general, previous research has not shown any links between widespread stressful events—like earthquakes and hurricanes—and personality change. The coronavirus pandemic, however, has impacted practically every facet of life and the whole world.
The new study utilized longitudinal personality tests from 7,109 adults who participated in the online Understanding America Study. They examined five-factor model personality traits—neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness—between pre-pandemic measures (May 2014 – February 2020) and evaluations early in the pandemic (March – December 2020) or later (2021-2022). A total of 18,623 evaluations were analyzed, with a mean of 2.62 per participant. 41.2% of the participants were male and ranged in age from 18 to 109.
Consistent with other studies, there were relatively few changes between pre-pandemic and 2020 personality traits, with only a small decline in neuroticism. However, there were declines in extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness when the 2021-2022 data was compared to pre-pandemic personality. The changes were about one-tenth of a standard deviation, which is equivalent to about one decade of normative personality change. The changes were moderated by age, with younger adults showing disrupted maturity in the form of increased neuroticism and decreased agreeableness and conscientiousness, and the oldest group of adults showing no statistically significant changes in traits.
The authors conclude that if these changes are enduring, it suggests that population-wide stressful events can slightly bend the trajectory of personality, especially in younger adults.
The authors add: “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.”
Reference: “Differential personality change earlier and later in the coronavirus pandemic in a longitudinal sample of adults in the United States” by Angelina R. Sutin, Yannick Stephan, Martina Luchetti, Damaris Aschwanden, Ji Hyun Lee, Amanda A. Sesker and Antonio Terracciano, 28 September 2022, PLOS ONE.
The study was funded by the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health.
The funders had no role in study design, data collection, and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.