Well-Being Mental Health

Pandemic may have made young adults moodier, less cooperative: study

“Strikingly, younger adults showed disrupted maturity in that they increased in neuroticism and declined in agreeableness and conscientiousness.”
Image of woman dealing with emotions.

Story at a glance

  • New research details the extent to which COVID-19 has altered individuals’ personalities.

  • Changes were greatest among young adults and individuals of Hispanic/Latino ethnicity.

  • Declines in certain traits were equivalent to normal personality changes seen over the course of a decade.

Thousands of Americans experienced shifts in personality traits like extraversion, agreeableness, openness and conscientiousness between pre-pandemic times and 2022, according to results of a new study. The trend was particularly pronounced in younger adults. 

In the past, it was thought personality traits were relatively impervious to environmental changes and pressures. But writing in the journal PLOS One, researchers explain that if the changes persist, it would appear “population-wide stressful events can slightly bend the trajectory of personality, especially in younger adults.” 

Compared with older adults, younger adults’ personalities are more likely to morph and develop at this stage of adulthood. Additional factors like job market instability and school-related stressors could also take a greater toll on younger adults.

“Strikingly, younger adults showed disrupted maturity in that they increased in neuroticism and declined in agreeableness and conscientiousness,” authors said, while “the slight decrease in neuroticism early in the pandemic was short-lived and detrimental changes in the other traits emerged over time.” 

Put differently, younger adults tended to become moodier, more prone to stress and less cooperative and trusting. They also became less restrained and responsible. 

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These small declines were equivalent to about a decade’s worth of personality changes a person might normally experience. 

The results come as scientists around the globe work to understand the lasting psychological impacts of COVID-19, which has claimed more than 6 million lives worldwide and continues to take hundreds of American lives each day. 

Differences in personality traits were also seen among Hispanic/Latino participants, as these individuals did not experience declines in neuroticism, and shifts in personality occurred at different time points compared with others. This population also saw a larger decline in extraversion, openness and conscientiousness in 2021–2022 compared with non-Hispanic/Latino participants. 

Although personal stressful events may alter an individual’s personality, previous research has generally found no association between collective crises like earthquakes and hurricanes and personality changes, underscoring the unique nature of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To carry out the study, researchers analyzed more than 18,000 assessments from 7,109 participants of the Understanding America Study. Pre-pandemic results (May 2014-February 2020) were compared with responses collected earlier in the pandemic (March-December 2020) and later (2021-2022), to see how personalities changed over time. 

In 2020, data showed neuroticism declined very slightly compared with pre-pandemic levels. There were no changes in extraversion, openness, agreeableness or conscientiousness.

However, 2021-2022 results showed no significant change in neuroticism compared to pre-pandemic levels among the whole population studied, but significant small declines in extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, authors wrote. 

Data also showed the 2020 decline in neuroticism was largest for older adults, but declines in the other four traits in 2021 was seen in middle-aged and younger adults.

Lower neuroticism rates among older adults could have been a result of increased messages urging people to take care of their mental health and reach out to this isolated population. Early in the pandemic, there was also an increased sense of social cohesion, as people worked together to stop the spread of COVID-19. 

But as the crisis persisted into 2021 and 2022, declines in social support and increased conflict around pandemic protection measures might have accounted for the personality changes seen at that time. 

The majority of individuals assessed were female and all ranged in age from 18 to 109. Although results varied by age, no changes were seen based on race or education level.