lonely woman wearing mask during pandemic
This entry was posted in Mental Health on by .

It is no exaggeration to note that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on individuals, families, and communities across the United States and throughout the world.

In terms of physical health alone, the statistics border on the staggering:

  • As of Nov. 30, 2022, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had recorded more than 98 million cases of COVID and 1.07 million COVID-related deaths.
  • On the same date, the World Health Organization reported a global total of more than 693 million confirmed COVID cases and 6.6 million deaths.

But the effects of COVID are by no means limited to medical concerns.

Efforts to mitigate the spread of this disease affected businesses, government services, schools, and virtually every other aspect of modern life. Online education became a temporary reality for most American students, Zoom conferences were the norm for many employees, and computer-assisted gathering replaced in-person holiday get-togethers for many families.

Since the early days of the pandemic, experts have been paying close attention to the economic and mental health impact of these changes, as well as the effects that they have had on important areas such as family cohesion, career development opportunities, and the academic progress of children and adolescents.

Yet, as with the medical statistics above, these efforts still could not capture the full scope of COVID’s impact.

For example, at the end of 2022, several articles began to shed light on a topic that had not previously received much public attention:

How has the pandemic impacted personality development among young adults?

‘Disrupted Maturity’

Many of the articles that were published in late 2022 discussed a study that was led by Angela R. Sutin, PhD, of Florida State University College of Medicine.

Dr. Sutin’s team explored pandemic-related personality changes among adults during the pandemic. The team analyzed data from 7,109 participants that had been collected through the Understanding America Study (UAS). Each participant provided information three times:

  • Prior to March 2020 (before widespread restrictions and other changes had been implemented to combat the pandemic)
  • Later in 2020 (a period that the researchers referred to as “the acute phase” of the pandemic)
  • In either 2021 or 2022 (during what the researchers dubbed “the adaptation phase”)

As the team reviewed this information, they focused on how adults were affected in terms of the “Big Five” personality domains:

  • Neuroticism: People who score higher on the neuroticism scale are more likely to exhibit characteristics such as anxiety, hostility, self-consciousness, and discontent.
  • Extraversion: This category assesses qualities such as enthusiasm, adventurousness, sociability, and personal warmth.
  • Openness: Traits that can lead to a high score in this category include curiosity, imagination, unconventional values, and an artistic aesthetic.
  • Agreeableness: A high agreeableness score indicates that a person is modest, sympathetic, and forgiving, without being either demanding or stubborn.
  • Conscientiousness: Elements of conscientiousness include organization, efficiency, deliberation, self-discipline, and a sense of duty.

In a Sept. 28 PLOS One article, Dr. Sutin’s team reported that younger adults experienced “disrupted maturity” during the first two years of the pandemic. They based this assessment on scores that showed increased neuroticism and declines in both agreeableness and conscientiousness among individuals ages 18-30.

The researchers noted that the personality changes they detected in the UAS data were dramatic.

Once a person reaches adulthood, their personality typically remains relatively constant. Changes do occur, of course – but they usually do so slowly and incrementally. The personality changes that Dr. Sutin’s team documented defied this norm.  

“The change observed during the short time of the pandemic approximated the degree of change usually observed over a decade,” the team wrote. “In addition, the changes were much larger for some demographic groups, including … the decline in conscientiousness for younger adults.”

At the moment, there is no way to tell if the pandemic-related personality changes that Dr. Sutin’s team uncovered represent a temporary shift or a lasting transformation. But it’s not too early to discuss the potential negative effects that these changes may have.

‘Enormous Public Health Implications’

According to clinical psychologists Thomas Widiger and Joshua Oltmanns, neuroticism has “enormous public health implications.”

In a May 2017 article in the journal World Psychology, Widiger and Oltmanns reported that people who exhibit elevated levels of neuroticism may be at risk for myriad challenges, including:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Emotional instability
  • Substance use
  • Cardiac problems
  • Disrupted functioning of the immune system
  • Marital dissatisfaction
  • Poor performance at work
  • Exhaustion

“Given its central importance for so many different forms of mental and physical dysfunction, it is not surprising that neuroticism is evident within the predominant models of personality, personality disorder, and psychopathology,” they wrote.

Physical, Psychological, & Social Harm

In addition to exhibiting increased neuroticism, the young adults who whose data were analyzed by Dr. Sutin’s team also demonstrated diminished agreeableness and conscientiousness.

According to an April 2017 article in the Journal of Research in Personality, low agreeableness may be linked to problems such as:

  • Poor self-regulation
  • Impulsivity
  • Difficulties in relationships
  • Negative reactions to conflict
  • Antisocial and risky behaviors
  • Worsening of personal vulnerabilities
  • Overreaction to rejection
  • Increased victimization

Research into conscientiousness suggests that people who are deficient in this personality trait may be at risk for considerable health problems:

  • A 2013 study in the journal Health Psychology linked elevated conscientiousness with improved outcomes in a variety of health-related scenarios. “Conscientious individuals report lower high blood pressure, lower incidence of diabetes, stroke, and joint problems, and fewer psychiatric conditions,” the article stated.
  • A 2014 study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research discovered that decreased conscientiousness among adults ages 34-55 was associated with an increased risk of death. “Each 1 standard deviation decrease in conscientiousness was associated with a 10% increase in … mortality,” the study’s authors reported.
  • A 2019 study in the journal Neuroepidemiology found that high levels of conscientiousness were linked with a lower likelihood of developing dementia. “Higher conscientiousness may be protective, or lower conscientiousness may be an early symptom of neurodegenerative disease,” the research team wrote.

‘A Less Fortunate Path’

It is far too early to predict the long-term of impact of the current pandemic-related personality changes in young adults. But at least one expert believes that the damage could be considerable.

Janina Bühler, PhD, who led an eight-month study of young adults in 2019-2020, suggested that the intense challenges of the pandemic years may have a lasting negative effect on people.

“If everything goes well, young adults select into social networks, initiate friendships and romantic relationships, and find their occupational niche,” Dr. Bühler said in a press release that accompanied the publication of her study. “Our findings, however, show that external stressors and environmental variations may set young adults on a less fortunate path.”