The pandemic has barely changed Americans’ personalities

What makes up an individual’s personality? It’s a loaded question with no easy answer. Personalities are like snowflakes; no two are exactly alike. Most psychologists, however, support the Big Five Model of personality traits.

In a nutshell, the Big Five Model states that each personality is made up of five distinct parts or sections: neuroticism, openness to experience, extraversion, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. Individuals fall on a spectrum for each trait; one person may be high in conscientiousness and low in neuroticism, while another is the exact opposite. According to the theory, these five traits largely remain stable throughout a person’s life, from childhood to old age.

However, major life disruptions and stressors have been known to induce changes in some people’s personalities. The COVID-19 pandemic is pretty much the biggest large-scale life disruption this planet has seen in a century, so a team of researchers from Florida State University theorized that some Americans may have experienced changes in their personalities over the past few months. 

Surprisingly, though, the researchers’ findings didn’t support this hypothesis. A survey of over 2,000 Americans showed barely any shifts in personality. Moreover, the few changes that were noted actually showed a decrease in neuroticism. Not exactly a predictable finding during a global pandemic.

A total of 2,137 U.S. adults were surveyed twice for this project. The first poll took place in early February of this year, so just before the pandemic got started on American soil. The second survey was held in mid-March.

Participants’ five major personality traits didn’t change all that much in between the two surveys, suggesting the pandemic hasn’t changed Americans’ personalities.

“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,” researchers write in a press release.

But, why was the only notable shift in personalities a drop in neuroticism? Neuroticism is characterized by a natural inclination toward anxiety and pessimism. So, shouldn’t people with a penchant for neuroticism be feeling even more neurotic and anxious during a viral pandemic?

The study’s authors speculate this unusual relationship between neuroticism and the pandemic may be due to many Americans attributing higher stress and anxiety levels right now to outside forces beyond their control (COVID-19) as opposed to their mindsets or personalities.

Before conducting this study, the team at FSU also expected to see an increase in conscientiousness (consideration for others, discipline) among American personalities. Their theory certainly makes sense. Americans, and people all over the world, have continually been encouraged to look after one another and follow safety guidelines to protect their neighbors and fellow humans. Interestingly, survey responses didn’t support this prediction.

To be fair, though, the coronavirus has changed what is even considered conscientious in many scenarios. For example, before COVID-19 appeared many managers would admire an employee who reports for work despite feeling under the weather. Today, such an action would almost certainly be called inconsiderate. 

Also, since these surveys were carried out early on in the pandemic, personality shifts among Americans may just be taking some more time to show themselves. Only time will tell.

The full study can be found here, published in PLOS ONE.