Few changes seen in 'Big Five' personality traits during early days of COVID-19 pandemic

August 06, 2020

A new study suggests that adults experienced few changes in "Big Five" personality traits as a result of the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. Angelina Sutin of Florida State University College of Medicine and colleagues present these findings in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on August 6, 2020.

The "Big Five" personality traits-- extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness--are part of a psychological framework known as the Five Factor Model. These traits typically remain stable in normal circumstances, but they can change in response to unusual distress.

Sutin and colleagues hypothesized that the coronavirus pandemic and efforts to control it could be disruptive enough to change personality traits. To test this idea, they surveyed 2,137 adults from across the U.S. in early February 2020, before the pandemic had reached critical levels in the U.S., and again in mid March, when its impact had become widespread.

Analysis of the survey responses showed few changes in the five personality traits over the study period, suggesting that people's personalities remained relatively stable.

However, while the researchers hypothesized that people's neuroticism would increase, it instead decreased slightly. This could be because participants attributed any increased anxiety and distress (components of neuroticism) to external factors, rather than their own personalities.

In addition, the researchers expected to see increased conscientiousness due to messages promoting actions to slow disease spread. However, conscientiousness did not change. This could be because the pandemic provided a new social context for a specific question about going to work despite feeling sick, which may have previously seemed like a dutiful action, but could now be seen as irresponsible.

Further work will be needed to confirm the small changes seen in this study and determine whether they are long-lasting. Additional research could also reveal whether the pandemic is causing personality changes that are taking longer to appear.

The authors add: "The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted most aspects of our lives, from health to social relationships to economic security. Yet, this disruption had little effect on personality traits, which shows the resiliency of personality even to catastrophic events, at least in the short-term."
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Citation: Sutin AR, Luchetti M, Aschwanden D, Lee JH, Sesker AA, Strickhouser JE, et al. (2020) Change in five-factor model personality traits during the acute phase of the coronavirus pandemic. PLoS ONE 15(8): e0237056. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0237056

Funding: Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R01AG053297 to ARS. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

In your coverage please use this URL to provide access to the freely available article in PLOS ONE: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0237056

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