Another article on all the anxiety and depression triggered by the pandemic. I sigh. The articles themselves are depressing and anxiety inducing. Skimming with one finger on the delete button, I hesitate at a word: “surprisingly.” Reading more slowly now, I register this: “Surprisingly, two previous studies found that neuroticism decreased early in the pandemic.”
What? Back when I was scrubbing down my groceries with bleach and holding up my hands like a surgeon waiting to be gloved? I begin reading in earnest. A third study replicated the results of the previous two, finding a decline (admittedly slight) in neuroticism in 2020, compared to pre-pandemic levels.
Here I thought my husband and I were the only ones who secretly relished the excuse to hole up, the cessation of daily obligations, the reprieve from socially prescribed vanities, the freedom from invitations that, as introverts, we always agonized over, even though we wound up having fun almost every time. I did feel less neurotic in lockdown, despite irrational hysteria, abstract grief, obsessive cleanliness, generalized anxiety, rage at my fellow citizens, and legitimate fears. If others managed a little less neurosis, too? That is quite a finding.
It suggests that in normal times, we make one another crazy.
The new study found that the decrease in neuroticism had faded by 2021-2022, as normalcy seeped back into our lives. Now, though, there were small but significant declines in extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. But not for everyone.
The biggest variable in these studies was age. Older adults had shown the biggest decline in neuroticism in 2020—another surprise, given all the concern about isolation and fragility. By 2021, older and middle-aged adults were continuing to decline, though only slightly, in neuroticism, but now younger adults were increasing in neuroticism. The traits that were declining most significantly for them were extraversion, openness, and most significantly, agreeableness and conscientiousness.
This does not bode well for the nursing home staff I will someday rely upon.
The researchers were less concerned with my golden years, however, and more intrigued by their conclusion: “Population-wide stressful events can slightly bend the trajectory of personality, especially in younger adults.” When you are setting out to shape your future, you need the world’s cooperation. If something cuts you off from the usual paths to love and work, you will be frantic—and cranky, and not inclined to keep doing more than your fair share, given the absence of reciprocity from the universe.
Much has been made of the genes we inherit and the screwy family dynamics that play out behind closed doors. But it seems the larger environment can either release some of our internal pressures or exacerbate them. There are specific conditions, though. Natural disasters have not been found to affect personality traits at all. The pandemic, on the other hand, “affected the entire globe and nearly every aspect of life.” It did not end swiftly and demand us to pull together and rebuild, for everyone’s sake. Instead, it dragged on, slicing up friendships and families as it went, because we could not agree on what mattered more, public health or individual freedom.
The researchers cheerfully admitted their initial errors. “We hypothesized a decrease in extraversion and conscientiousness” in the beginning of the pandemic, they write, “because of restrictions on social gatherings and the loss of daily routines that often give structure to one’s life.” A perfectly rational, concrete, practical hypothesis—but it bombed. More clinically: “We did not, however, find any support for these declines.” Instead, people reached out to one another in that first year, and those block parties and terrace singalongs shored them up.
The second hypothesis failed even more definitively: “We hypothesized that neuroticism would increase because of pandemic-related stressors and the accompanying fear and uncertainty would lead to more feelings of emotional instability.” That did not happen. Even those who typically suffer from anxiety experienced a reprieve, perhaps because there was now a concrete source for legitimate worry, and it absorbed all that free-floating angst and directed it with specific rules. Why label yourself neurotic when the entire world was neurotic? We were supposed to keep washing your hands. Social anxiety was prescribed. A six-foot distance that would have once been seen as squirrelly was now the sensible norm.
We gave each other space, and we gave our various anxieties a focal point and some practical action steps.
Contagion remains, but we have absorbed those practical steps and turned them into automatic habits. We no longer have to sing “Happy Birthday” aloud when we wash our hands. Life feels normal again, and neurotic anxiety has ratcheted back up for all of us.
What about the other personality changes that younger people experienced—will they fade, too? And why were older adults immune to that lessening of extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness?
Our ways were set, I suppose. We had already forged our lives, found love if we wanted it, worked in whatever way was possible and necessary. We were no longer as dependent upon our environment. And we were not raised in a world that placed a premium on self-expression, branded and mediated for public consumption. We could relax into our cocoon, free of the need to prove—well, anything.
Younger people’s personality changes could have been a delayed effect from the initial shock of the pandemic, the researchers say. Or, the stressors changed as the pandemic wore on, and we lost the social cohesion and sense of community that helps keep personality stable. They suggest that the decline in openness could have come from narrowed activities and fewer experiences with the arts, but I suspect it has more to do with political polarization, which has made all of us knee-jerk stubborn.
“The move to online communication and reliance on social media may have decreased exposure to new ideas,” the researchers point out—a sad irony, when the internet was supposed to open the world to us. As for the decline in agreeableness, they link it to the decline in trust, which I find intriguing. The “amplification of mis/disinformation that undermines trust” made people less straightforward and presumably less pleasant.
For researchers in personality theory, these results must be fascinating. For the rest of us, they blueprint the sort of society we need to create, if we want to be calm and sweet and earnest with one another.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.