Whether you feel emotionally exhausted by two years of constant norm changes, or you’re now a pro with alone time, everyone has their own story about how the pandemic reshaped their day-to-day lives. And if it seems like the pandemic has permanently changed who you are and your outlook on life—it’s not just you.
New research suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed our personality traits over time. Using data from Truity’s 2.8 million person dataset and the COVID-19 Tracking Project, a new large-scale research project found striking correlations between pandemic data and personality traits—most notably that individuals have steadily grown less Conscientious and more Neurotic (as defined by the Big Five model of personality) since the beginning of the pandemic.
“Although we typically understand personality as something that is relatively fixed for any given person, research also indicates that environmental forces can shift our behaviors and beliefs. What we have seen with this new research is that the pandemic has actually done this at the population level—making people less resilient to stress and less likely to engage in organized, goal-directed behaviors,” said Molly Owens, personality researcher and Founder and CEO of Truity, the personality assessment company that supplied the anonymized data for this research.
What the research shows—the five major findings
The model of personality used in the study was the Big Five model, which specifies that people tend to differ individually across five core trait dimensions:
- Openness: To what extent is the individual interested in ideas and aesthetics?
- Conscientiousness: To what extent is the individual orderly, industrious and achievement-oriented?
- Agreeableness: To what extent is the individual driven to be empathic and to comply with social norms?
- Extraversion: To what extent is the individual enthusiastic and assertive?
- Neuroticism: To what extent is the individual volatile and withdrawn?
By analyzing Truity’s database of over 2.8 million Big Five assessment results, recorded from 2019 to 2022, the study tracked how daily trait scores—averaged over thousands of users per day—changed across the pandemic. These findings were then superimposed over the COVID-19 Tracking Project’s metrics of the pandemic in order to analyze significant correlations between personality changes (e.g., an average increase in Neuroticism) and the dynamics of the pandemic (e.g., an increase in hospitalizations).
The full research preprint is available on PsyArXiv, but five major findings from the study are as follows:
1. On average, people have become less Conscientious since the beginning of the pandemic.
This provides some empirical support for widely-reported societal phenomena such as worker burnout, permanent moves to remote work and the Great Resignation. Given that Conscientiousness is associated with achievement-striving and industrious behavior, it makes a great deal of sense that large-scale decreases in this trait would correspond to people putting less effort into their work lives.
“The pandemic seems to have globally lowered our Conscientiousness, what we think of as our ability to stay organized and focused in the pursuit of long-term goals. One can theorize that the unpredictable circumstances of the pandemic, coupled with the burnout many experienced trying to juggle work and family, may have led people to turn away from long-term goals in favor of simply coping from moment-to-moment,” added Owens.
2. On average, people have become more Neurotic since the beginning of the pandemic.
Neuroticism scores increased most strongly in response to longer-term, cumulative worsening of the pandemic (e.g.cumulative COVID deaths). Neuroticism describes a person's sensitivity to negative emotions, including fear, sadness and anxiety.
This finding provides empirical support for widespread reports of the emotional exhaustion and long-term stress that many associate with the pandemic, particularly with respect to health-related risk-taking.
“The incomprehensible risks seen during the pandemic may have had a lasting effect on our ability to deal with everyday stress, raising the nationwide level of the trait that is known as Neuroticism—essentially, how much our mental wellbeing can be derailed by everyday stressors,” added Owens.
3. Daily average measures of Agreeableness increased in periods when the pandemic got worse and decreased in periods when the pandemic got better.
Agreeableness scores increased most strongly in response to shorter-term, transient worsening of the pandemic (e.g., hospitalization spikes). Agreeableness roughly describes the extent to which a person prioritizes the needs of others over their own. These results might suggest that a “we’re-all-in-this-together” mentality was most strongly activated in periods where the pandemic was particularly dire. This finding may elicit memories for some of helping source and assemble PPE for health workers during shortages early in the pandemic.
4. Daily average measures of Openness decreased in periods when the pandemic got worse and increased in periods when the pandemic got better.
Openness roughly describes a person's motivation to think abstractly and pursue beauty in things like art, music and culture. Unlike Agreeableness, Openness significantly decreased in response to the shorter-term, transient worsening of the pandemic. During these same challenging periods, people appear to have been significantly less motivated to be creative, exploratory and beauty-seeking.
This may be due to the fact that the ‘fight-or-flight’ mode activated during an acute public health crisis is not conducive to the more ‘cerebral’ activities associated with Openness. In other words, when people learned that their local hospital’s ICU had reached capacity, it appears that their reaction may have been more like “this seems like the time to play it safe and steady,” rather than “this seems like the perfect time to go encounter some new ideas.” These appeared to reverse, however, when hospitals cleared out and the state of the pandemic became less dire.
5. Machine learning regression models indicate that metrics of the COVID-19 pandemic can be used to explain roughly half of the personality changes exhibited over the course of the pandemic.
In other words, we find that approximately 50% of the ‘story’ of the personality changes seen during the pandemic can be ‘told’ solely given metrics of the pandemic itself, such as the number of people hospitalized, in the ICU, and testing positive for COVID-19. This suggests that the pandemic has a strong explanatory role in the shifting personality trends we discovered over the two-year window of our analysis.
Overall, these findings demonstrate that our personalities were, in fact, changed by the events of the pandemic. In the cases of Conscientiousness and Neuroticism, the trend is straightforward and appears to have extended into the present—that is, we are now on average more Neurotic and less Conscientious than we were at the start of the pandemic.
Traits like Openness and Agreeableness were more intimately linked to the short-term ebbs and flows of the pandemic: in its worst phases, people appear ‘pushed’ to be their most agreeable and least open selves, with the reverse occurring when hospitalizations and positive cases were at their lowest.
The relationship between Extraversion and pandemic trends were in general found to be statistically insignificant.
These findings complement other recent investigations that also suggest that the pandemic has exhibited specific, measurable and durable impacts on human personality. In particular, new work by Sutin and colleagues also reveals significant population-level decreases in Conscientiousness and increases in Neuroticism (specifically in younger adults) over the course of the pandemic. Their research also found counterintuitive decreases in Neuroticism at the start of the pandemic, which is also replicated by our sample.
While it is important to note that other recent studies were able to be performed on a more tightly controlled sample, our analysis utilizes roughly 1000 times more data—all sampled continuously over the entire course of the pandemic—which allows for a significantly more fine-grained analysis of the relationship between specific pandemic events (e.g., spikes in COVID hospitalizations) and personality metrics. For example, while recent investigations report that Agreeableness may have decreased over the entire course of the pandemic, our analyses enable us to report a somewhat more subtle result—namely, that Agreeableness seemed to significantly increase during periods where the pandemic was especially salient and decrease during the opposite periods.
All of these new findings help to paint an ever-clearer picture of how the pandemic has altered who we are, both as individuals and as a population.
For the full research findings and more on the methodology, see the preprint on PsyArXiv. You can measure your own levels of the Big Five personality traits with Truity’s validated Big Five personality test.