Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately three years ago, the ways that we work, study and spend our time have all shifted. It’s therefore not surprising that the pandemic has also altered our minds — transforming the feelings, thoughts and traits that make us unique.
In fact, in spite of the pervasive theory among psychologists that people’s personalities remain relatively stagnant in the face of shared stressors, a paper published in PLOS ONE this fall states that the temperaments of thousands of individuals in the U.S. have shifted thanks to the pandemic, with younger people seeing the worst of the impact.
So, in what ways could coronavirus change who we are, and will these changes stick around?
The psychological symptoms of an infection of COVID-19 are, in and of themselves, stark. For instance, an abundance of infected individuals suffer from symptoms involving their mood, stress and ability to sleep and over 52 percent of those in the U.S. find themselves struggling with symptoms of major depressive disorder in the aftermath of their infection. The risk of these symptoms, specialists say, sometimes remains for a full year following a patient’s recovery.
Put simply, COVID-19 bothers the mind as well as the body. But making matters much worse and widespread are the symptoms of the coronavirus pandemic as a whole, which impact individuals with infections, as well as those without. Around the world, specialists say that the prevalence of depression and anxiety increased by about 25 percent thanks to the pandemic, and within the U.S., the number of individuals with depression symptoms tripled in one year after the appearance of the virus.
Now specialists are saying that the psychological impacts of the pandemic stretch far past what was previously thought possible. In fact, though several studies show that personal trauma can change personality, scholars have typically thought that temperament stays the same in the face of collective catastrophes such as typhoons, tornados and other natural crises.
That said, the coronavirus pandemic has seemingly interrupted this trend, causing clear reductions in people’s extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness. More than that, the pandemic has also inspired increases in neuroticism, particularly among youngsters, according to the new PLOS ONE paper.
“The personality of young adults changed the most,” the authors of the paper say in a press release. “That is, younger adults became moodier and more prone to stress, less cooperative and trusting, and less restrained and responsible.”
With adolescence already being a tumultuous time, the authors say that these shifts may make the period all the more precarious. In fact, though they stress that these swings in personality may signify only a single moment in time and may or may not persist into the future, the authors add that the changes are contradictory to what they would consider typical for an adolescent transitioning into adulthood.
“The implications of these changes may ripple throughout their adult lives,” the authors state in their paper.
Studying Collective Changes
While it remains to be seen whether people will sustain or shed their pandemic personas, the fact that they arose is crystal clear. Relying on the personality assessments of over 7,100 individuals from three separate periods (one prior to the start of the pandemic and two after), the analysis showed shifts similar in scope to those associated with 10 years of aging for an average individual.
The authors say that the bigger shifts among adolescents — particularly in their increased neuroticism and decreased agreeableness and conscientiousness — could be because their temperaments are still settling, making them more susceptible to the influence of shared stressors. The shifts could also be because younger adults are still developing strategies for dealing with adversity. Yet, another possibility is that pandemic prevention policies such as social distancing could’ve taken a bigger toll on their activities, above and beyond than the activities of older adults.
Whatever the reason for the specific distribution of personality shifts, the authors say that the changes could challenge the way we view personality development, particularly if they persist.
“If these changes are enduring, this evidence suggests population-wide stressful events can slightly bend the trajectory of personality,” the authors state in their paper.
So, while it appears that COVID-19 can change who we are in the short term, only time will tell whether those changes will last.