People change, apparently. Photo for illustrative purposes. Photo: Cottonbro, Pexels
Some will tell you that people don’t change, but current science tends to disagree. A person’s personality can change naturally over time, or deliberately with effort. It can also change collectively, apparently, thanks to a global health crisis.
New research published in PLOS One reported that American adults experienced changes in their personalities over the COVID-19 pandemic. The changes were small but equivalent to around a decade’s worth of personality changes in only two years.The researchers analyzed data from 7,109 adults, aged 18 to 109, enrolled in the Understanding America Study. The participants took personality tests that assessed the traits in the widely-accepted five-factor model of personality—neuroticism (managing stress), extroversion (connecting with others), openness (creative thinking), agreeableness (trusting others), and conscientiousness (being disciplined and responsible). The researchers examined test results from before the pandemic, early in the pandemic (March to December 2020, according to the researchers), and later in the pandemic (January 2021 to February 2022). In the latter part of the study, researchers reported declines in extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness in the subjects—personality traits that help people navigate social situations, trust others, and act responsibly. Particularly susceptible to these changes were young adults, who also showed an increase in neuroticism later in the pandemic.
“Younger adults became moodier and more prone to stress, less cooperative and trusting, and less restrained and responsible,” the authors of the study told The Guardian.The study itself only recorded the personality changes and did not explain what exactly caused them. But the researchers hazarded explanations.For example, they said that young adults’ lives were arguably more disrupted by the pandemic lockdowns and policies than other age groups, because the pandemic drastically changed plenty of the things that young adults would normally do (like going to school or work and socializing).But while most people around the world experienced similar lockdowns and restrictions during the pandemic, not everybody thinks they changed in the same way.“I was forced to learn how to be alone,” said Cara Paguio, 27, from Manila, Philippines, about her experience of the pandemic.Over the course of the pandemic, she moved out of her parents’ house and into her own place, got a new job, and adopted a cat. She said these made her more conscientious, contrary to the study’s findings, and more introverted, aligned with the study.
Wherever people lived, they were spending more time at home over the course of the lockdowns, which might explain declines in extraversion. It’s difficult to be outgoing when you’re not allowed to go out. “I’ve become more lazy to do social activities,” said Jason, a 35-year-old based in Hong Kong. Jason preferred to go by a pseudonym to protect his privacy. He thinks this change is partly due to becoming more engaged with his job over the pandemic, leaving him with less energy for other things. That he’s based in Hong Kong, where he said things like going out to events is still difficult, is also a factor. The changes in his personality, he said, could also be just a natural byproduct of age, albeit fast-tracked by the pandemic.Carrie Nakpil, 27, from Manila, said that she’s become more selective of who she goes out with. Like Jason, she thinks that would have happened at one point or another anyway, but not as quickly if it wasn’t for the pandemic. “I think it would have happened even without the pandemic. When life slows down with age, you find your circles that you’re closer to and that’s where you allocate your time. I think it was inevitable but the pandemic definitely sped it up to an earlier age. I wouldn’t have experienced that at 26 if the pandemic didn’t stop time for two years,” she said. Paguio disagreed, saying that the changes to her personality that she experienced would not have happened if it wasn’t for the pandemic.
“If I kept going on as is, with the normal socials and all, I wouldn’t find any need to change. I accepted that was the norm and who I was as the default. Lockdown gave me a chance to pause and decide if this is the type of person I really was or wanted to be,” she said. But just because the pandemic gave some people time to reflect does not necessarily mean that people needed to change. The pandemic may have just made people more aware of the way they are. “I’m just as extroverted, but now I make a conscious effort to think and process my interactions more. The actions aren’t different but I unpack them more internally,” said Claudio Lopa, 27, also from Manila. “It’s like I just think more during social interactions. I pick up on micro-emotions and adjust accordingly.” Lopa thinks this could be a natural progression of his self-observation habits and communication skills, but also that it was sped up by the pandemic. According to him, he wouldn’t have spent as much time alone developing his habits otherwise. This is consistent with other studies that reported that personality changes slowly over time, and usually for the “better.” The personality changes found in the study, however, might not exactly be good changes.For example, neuroticism generally tends to decrease with age, while agreeableness and conscientiousness tend to increase. One of the authors of the study called this trajectory “development towards maturity.” Again, the study found a reversal of that trajectory in younger adults—they experienced an increase in neuroticism and a decrease in agreeableness and conscientiousness.
That personalities may have changed for the worse over the pandemic begs the question of whether or not those changes will reverse now that lockdowns and social restrictions are more or less over. Early in the pandemic, the researchers recorded a small decline in their participants’ neuroticism compared to their neuroticism pre-pandemic. But this decline reverted later on. The researchers will reportedly continue to monitor their participants to see whether the changes in their personalities prove to be temporary or more enduring. Nakpil said that she likely will stay discerning of who she spends time with even if she can now go out with more people, hinting that the changes she said the pandemic expedited are lasting. Jason said that he’d have to move out of Hong Kong to have the same gusto for going out, suggesting that the changes he experienced over the pandemic may still be reversed given a change in environment. One of the limits of the study is that it does not have a control group. The researchers can’t compare their participants with people who didn’t live through the pandemic because there aren’t people who didn’t live through the pandemic in one way or another.That means people are left to compare their present selves only with their past selves—and some, like Paguio, are happy about where they ended up.“I like who I am now a lot more than who I was pre-pandemic, so I see no reason to actively pursue going back to my old self,” she said. Follow Romano Santos on Instagram.