The global coronavirus pandemic has affected almost everyone around the world in ways we are still trying to understand. It seems that one of the results is that many of us have become moodier along the way, often to the point of becoming more neurotic and less pleasant.
According to a new study of 7,109 people between the ages of 18 and 90, the change was most noticeable in younger adults. Among the elderly included in the survey, there were no statistically significant changes.
While previous research has suggested that collectively stressful but localized events — like a natural disaster — don’t move the needle on most personality traits, this study shows that global environmental stressors can indeed make a difference.
“There was limited personality change at the beginning of the pandemic, but striking changes starting in 2021,” say the study’s authors. “Notably, young adults’ personality changed the most, with marked increases in neuroticism and decreases in agreeableness and conscientiousness.”
“That is, younger adults became more moody and more prone to stress, less cooperative and trusting, and less restrained and responsible.”
The researchers used the Big Five personality trait model—covering neuroticism, extroversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness—to assess study participants, while one of the extroversion traits is subsumed overall.
Considering the lockdowns that swept the world, limiting how often we could go out and interact with other people face-to-face, it’s perhaps no surprise that we ended up less extroverted – a trait associated with being outgoing and having fun from socializing with others.
Openness is another trait that now appears to be less prevalent post-pandemic.
The researchers report that overall, the personality changes would normally take several years to occur.
“The changes were about one-tenth of a standard deviation, equivalent to about a decade of normative personality change,” the researchers write in their published paper.
Interestingly, decreases in extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness occurred in 2021 and 2022 but were not significant in 2020. This suggests that stressors became different as the pandemic progressed or that we had a delayed reaction to them.
In addition to age groups, there were more pronounced differences in the Hispanic and Latino populations, in terms of both the timing of personality changes (occurring earlier) and the level of decline in extraversion, openness, and conscientiousness.
As the researchers note, this shows that the stress of the pandemic was not distributed equally – and that some parts of the community fared better than others in terms of the economic costs of COVID and how easily its risks could be avoided.
The next question is how permanent these changes are likely to be: whether they will last for years to come, or whether our personalities can revert to something like their previous state. This has significant negative effects on our mental and physical health.
“We don’t yet know if these changes are temporary or will last, but if they persist, they could have long-term effects,” says behavioral scientist Angelina Sutin of Florida State University.
“Neuroticism and conscientiousness predict mental and physical health, as well as relationship and educational and occupational outcomes, and changes observed in these traits could increase the risk of worse outcomes.”
The research has been published in PLoS One.