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The Pandemic: The Personality Changer

The research on personality is probably the most reliable and statistically robust area of all studies of human nature. Essentially, the research has established that temperament is composed of five primary systems. This often referred to as the Big Five and comprise of the following core traits:

Conscientiousness: impulsive, disorganized vs. disciplined, careful

Agreeableness: suspicious, uncooperative vs. trusting, helpful

Neuroticism: calm, confident vs. anxious, pessimistic

Openness to Experience: prefers routine, practical vs. imaginative, spontaneous

Extraversion: reserved, thoughtful vs. sociable, fun-loving

To measure your Big Five, click here.

Genetic inheritability means that we are all born somewhere on the bell curve of these traits. Subsequent life events will act on these systems and moves us up or down the spectrum, shaping our temperaments over time. Nurture acts on nature so to speak. So, what happens when life events stop?

This recent study examines this very question and identifies how lockdowns exerted a very powerful effect on personality, especially amongst the young.

Previous studies have generally found no associations between collective stressful events -- such as earthquakes and hurricanes -- and personality change. However, the coronavirus pandemic has affected the entire globe and nearly every aspect of life.

In the new study, the researchers used longitudinal assessments of personality from 7,109 people enrolled in the online Understanding America Study. They compared five-factor model personality traits -- neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness -- between pre-pandemic measurements (May 2014 -- February 2020) and assessments early (March -- December 2020) or later (2021-2022) in the pandemic. A total of 18,623 assessments, or a mean of 2.62 per participant, were analyzed. Participants were 41.2% 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 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."

Story Source:

Materials provided by PLOS. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

Angelina R. Sutin, Yannick Stephan, Martina Luchetti, Damaris Aschwanden, Ji Hyun Lee, Amanda A. Sesker, Antonio Terracciano. Differential personality change earlier and later in the coronavirus pandemic in a longitudinal sample of adults in the United States. PLOS ONE, 2022; 17 (9): e0274542 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0274542

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