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COVID-19 Pandemic May Have Shifted the Personalities of Young Adults

Analysis of past personality assessments reveals changes that may have long-term effects at the population level

Holden Galusha

Holden Galusha is the associate editor for Lab Manager. He was a freelance contributing writer for Lab Manager before being invited to join the team full-time. Previously, he was the...

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In a study published in PLOS this past September, researchers discovered that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans became less open, agreeable, and extraverted—possibly changing the trajectory of personality in the United States permanently. The changes were most pronounced in young adults.

Our current understanding of personality according to the Big Five model indicates that traits are primarily determined by nature, not environment. While it is possible for external factors to shift one’s personality across the trait scales—such as by taking magic mushrooms to increase openness—generally, personality stays relatively static throughout life.

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With the radical effects that the COVID-19 pandemic had on the world and our everyday life, however, Angelina Sutin, PhD, and her research team at Florida State University saw an opportunity to see what effect, if any, such an event has on personality at the population level.

In their study, Sutin and her team analyzed the results of three previous personality collections conducted by the University of Southern California’s Understanding America Study (UAS) program, which consists of approximately 7,000 participants. Between 2014 and 2022, the UAS administered the same five factor personality test to participants three times. The three studies were dubbed UAS1 (administered 2014-2018), UAS121 (administered 2018-2020), and UAS237 (administered 2020-2022), respectively.

Between UAS1 (pre-pandemic) and UAS121 (early pandemic), the only shift in personality was, counterintuitively, a slight decrease in neuroticism. But the differences between UAS121 and UAS237 were far more significant. Results from UAS237 showed that four of the five factors (extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness) all decreased, while neuroticism increased. In other words, people have become less socially inclined, less open to new experiences, moodier, more argumentative, and less responsible. These effects were most pronounced in those 18 to 29 years old.

Interestingly, the shifts found in UAS237 mirrored normal shifts in personality that one experiences over about a decade of life, which is about one-tenth of a standard deviation. Should they endure, compressing these changes could bend the trajectory of personality in the United States.