Summary: Study of personality traits during the coronavirus pandemic reveals a slight decline in neuroticism.
A new study suggests that adults experienced few changes in “Big Five” personality traits as a result of the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. Angelina Sutin of Florida State University College of Medicine and colleagues present these findings in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on August 6, 2020.
The “Big Five” personality traits– extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness–are part of a psychological framework known as the Five Factor Model. These traits typically remain stable in normal circumstances, but they can change in response to unusual distress.
Sutin and colleagues hypothesized that the coronavirus pandemic and efforts to control it could be disruptive enough to change personality traits. To test this idea, they surveyed 2,137 adults from across the U.S. in early February 2020, before the pandemic had reached critical levels in the U.S., and again in mid March, when its impact had become widespread.
Analysis of the survey responses showed few changes in the five personality traits over the study period, suggesting that people’s personalities remained relatively stable.
However, while the researchers hypothesized that people’s neuroticism would increase, it instead decreased slightly. This could be because participants attributed any increased anxiety and distress (components of neuroticism) to external factors, rather than their own personalities.
In addition, the researchers expected to see increased conscientiousness due to messages promoting actions to slow disease spread. However, conscientiousness did not change. This could be because the pandemic provided a new social context for a specific question about going to work despite feeling sick, which may have previously seemed like a dutiful action, but could now be seen as irresponsible.
Further work will be needed to confirm the small changes seen in this study and determine whether they are long-lasting. Additional research could also reveal whether the pandemic is causing personality changes that are taking longer to appear.
The authors add: “The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted most aspects of our lives, from health to social relationships to economic security. Yet, this disruption had little effect on personality traits, which shows the resiliency of personality even to catastrophic events, at least in the short-term.”
Funding: Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R01AG053297 to ARS. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views 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.
About this psychology and coronavirus research article
Change in five-factor model personality traits during the acute phase of the coronavirus pandemic
The rapid spread of the coronavirus and the strategies to slow it have disrupted just about every aspect of our lives. Such disruption may be reflected in changes in psychological function. The present study used a pre-posttest design to test whether Five Factor Model personality traits changed with the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. Participants (N = 2,137) were tested in early February 2020 and again during the President’s 15 Days to Slow the Spread guidelines. In contrast to the preregistered hypotheses, Neuroticism decreased across these six weeks, particularly the facets of Anxiety and Depression, and Conscientiousness did not change. Interestingly, there was some evidence that the rapid changes in the social context had changed the meaning of an item. Specifically, an item about going to work despite being sick was a good indicator of conscientiousness before COVID-19, but the interpretation of it changed with the pandemic. In sum, the unexpected small decline in Neuroticism suggests that, during the acute phase of the coronavirus outbreak, feelings of anxiety and distress may be attributed more to the pandemic than to one’s personality.