Psychologist logo
Man doing yoga
Covid, Crisis, disaster and trauma, Personality and self

Did the pandemic change our personalities?

Recent study spanning the first two years of the pandemic broadly explores shifts in the Big Five traits.

19 April 2024

By Emily Reynolds

Although we often think of our personalities as fairly fixed, research suggests that personality traits can, in fact, change. They can shift as we age, for example, and some evidence even suggests that we can change certain traits at will (though this does require some hard work).

Significant life events can also move the needle, which in turn can have a long-lasting impact on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. With the huge emotional, physical, and political upheavals in recent years, the Covid-19 pandemic is, therefore, a prime period for researchers to understand such changes. Indeed, initial research in 2022 found that average levels of neuroticism increased early on in the pandemic, while extraversion, openness, and agreeableness slightly decreased compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Writing in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, a team from the universities of Toronto and Washington sought to explore the relationship between health and personality traits in exactly this context.

Data for this study was drawn from a wider longitudinal study looking at the impact of various psychosocial factors on responses to the pandemic, completed in 13 waves between March 2020 and December 2021. Firstly, a diverse sample of 504 U.S.-based participants were assessed using the Big Five Inventory, a 15-item scale used to assess conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, and openness.

The team also took measures of how stressed participants were, explored how much of a negative or positive impact the pandemic had had on their daily life, and asked participants how much they had engaged in social distancing and self isolating. Measures of general wellbeing, as well as facets of physical health such as sleep, were also obtained.

The first thing the team looked at was whether the Big Five traits changed across the duration of the study. Overall, between 88 to 97% of individuals did not demonstrate significant trait change — suggesting that the pandemic did not act as a particularly huge driver of shifts in personality.

Yet there were some changes to be seen when looking beyond the individual level. Over the course of the study, the team notes that levels of conscientiousness generally increased, whereas levels of extraversion generally decreased. Both of these shifts were significant, if slight. While the trajectories of conscientiousness, neuroticism, extraversion, and agreeableness across this time period as a whole significantly varied from person to person, participants shared similar trajectories for openness, which remained relatively stable.

Zooming in, there were interesting changes within specific smaller time frames: in the wave between March and July 2020, reported levels of extraversion decreased, while between July 2020 and April 2021, levels of conscientiousness increased. This, the authors believe, potentially reflects changes in participants' social lives and their engagement in protective, socially distancing behaviours — though only one factor, losing someone to Covid-19, was actually found to have an association with trait changes, taking the form of steeper decreases in extraversion.

As the pandemic progressed onwards, data obtained between April 2021 and December 2021 began to show changes in traits that have previously been linked to health behaviours. Increases in conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness were associated with increased levels of wellbeing, as well as physical and mental health symptoms. Decreases in neuroticism were associated with the same results.

While it may be tempting to assume that these shifts caused better health and wellbeing, the associative nature of the analysis means that we can't say for certain whether these impacted health, whether health impacted personality, or whether other mutual factors mediated these links.

The authors also note a few limitations to their work, including that the first data collection for this study was just days after the pandemic declaration, meaning that we "cannot distinguish between trait change that was initiated by the pandemic versus trait change that simply reflects returns to baseline trait levels following unmeasured changes that occurred very early in the pandemic before our first measurement occasion." Participants were also slightly skewed in that those who were younger, less physically healthy, and less conscientious were more likely to drop out or skip particular measures, which likely painted an incomplete picture.

Even so, this paper provides a broad illustration of the ways in which personality can change over the course of an unprecedented global emergency, adding to our understanding of the psychological experience of that timeframe, and providing further exploration of what will undoubtedly be a focus of psychological curiosity for decades to come.

Read the paper in full.