The psychological development of young adults may have taken a hit, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In typical times, people tend to become more conscientious and agreeable and less neurotic with age, a process known as psychological maturation. But in the United States, the pandemic seems to have reversed that personality trajectory, especially among adults under 30, researchers report September 28 in PLOS ONE. If those patterns persist, that could spell long-term trouble for this cohort, the researchers say.
“You get better as you go through life at being responsible, at coping with emotions and getting along with others,” says personality psychologist Rodica Damian of the University of Houston, who was not involved with this study. “The fact that in these young adults you see the opposite pattern does show stunted development.”
Personalities shape how people think, feel and behave. Researchers often assess a person’s personality profile along five core traits: neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion and openness to experience (SN: 9/1/21). Over time, these traits change slightly in individuals; neuroticism tends to decrease, for example, while agreeableness typically improves.
The pandemic, though, may be upending those typical trend lines. Even after factoring out expected changes, researchers in the new study observed about a decade’s worth of personality change, averaged across all study participants, in just three years — but going in the opposite of the expected direction. Young adults showed the greatest change in certain traits. Middle-aged adults — 30 to 64 years old — showed more change across all traits. The personalities of older adults, meanwhile, stayed largely unchanged.
Such age differences make intuitive sense to personality psychologist Wiebke Bleidorn of the University of Zurich. “The density of experiences in adolescence and young adulthood is so much higher” than in later life, says Bleidorn, who was not involved with the study. “If you miss out on your senior year of high school, you can’t get that back.”
To look at personality change in the United States before and during the pandemic, personality psychologist Angelina Sutin and colleagues analyzed data from the Understanding America Study.
This survey looks at how attitudes and behaviors in the country change in response to major events, such as the 2020 presidential election and the ongoing pandemic. Among those surveyed, roughly 7,000 people — ranging in age from 18 to 109 — took a personality inventory at least once in the six years prior to the pandemic and once during the pandemic.
Based on those responses, neuroticism overall in the United States dropped slightly in 2020, during the first year of the pandemic. That finding mirrors what the researchers found with a different dataset two years ago, when they reported that neuroticism declined in adults during the first six weeks of the pandemic. But the new findings include data from 2021 and 2022, which show that the dip was fleeting.
That initial dip was probably due to the sense of solidarity that emerged in the health crisis’s earlier months, along with people attributing their worries to the crisis rather than their own internal state, says Sutin, of Florida State University in Tallahassee. “In the second year, all that support fell apart.”
Average neuroticism scores have since rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. But the picture is nuanced, the researchers found. The 2020 dip was driven almost entirely by middle-aged participants and older adults. For those two groups, neuroticism scores continued to fall over the following years, albeit more slowly than before the pandemic. Neuroticism scores among young adults in 2021 and beyond, however, surpassed pre-pandemic levels.
Similarly, conscientiousness and agreeableness scores also declined among middle-aged adults in 2021 and early 2022, but the drop wasn’t nearly as steep as the one observed among young adults.
The findings are troubling, Sutin says. “We know these traits predict all sorts of long-term outcomes.”
For instance, high neuroticism links to mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression and feelings of loneliness. And low conscientiousness is linked to poor educational, work, health and relationship outcomes.
Still, whether these personality changes persist remains to be seen. It could be that young adults “missed the train” during a critical development period, Damian says. Maybe they would have gotten a college degree or pursued a more lucrative career without the pandemic. Or maybe these people can still reach their designated stop, just behind schedule.
“There are critical developmental periods and then there is plasticity,” Damian says. “We don’t know how it’s going to play out.”