The psychological development of young people may have taken a hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In typical times, people tend to become more serious, agreeable, and less neurotic as they age, a process known as psychological maturity.But in the U.S., the pandemic appears to have reversed this trajectoryespecially among adults under the age of 30, the researchers reported Sept. 28 in PLOS ONEIf these patterns persist, it could spell long-term trouble for this group, the researchers said.
“When you become responsible in your life, dealing with emotions and getting along with others, you become Better.” “In fact, in these young adults, you see the opposite pattern, which does indicate stunting.”
Personality shapes how people think, feel and behave.Researchers often assess a person’s personality traits based on five core traits: neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness, extroversion, and open experience (SN: 9/1/21). These characteristics vary slightly across individuals over time; neuroticism, for example, tends to decrease, while agreeableness typically increases.
Still, the pandemic may be upending these typical trend lines. Even after ruling out the expected changes, the researchers in the new study observed about a decade of personality changes in just three years, which was the average for all study participants — but in the opposite direction of what was expected. Young people show the greatest changes in certain characteristics. Middle-aged adults aged 30 to 64 showed greater variation across all characteristics. At the same time, the personality of the elderly remains largely unchanged.
For Wiebke Bleidorn, a personality psychologist at the University of Zurich, this age difference has intuitive implications. “Adolescence and adolescence have a much higher density of experiences than later life,” said Bradorn, who was not involved in the study. “If you miss your final year of high school, you can’t get it back.”
To study personality changes in the United States before and during the pandemic, personality psychologist Angelina Soutine and colleagues analyzed data from the United States Learn about American Studies.
The survey looks at how attitudes and behaviors in the country have changed in response to major events, such as the 2020 presidential election and the ongoing pandemic. Of those surveyed, about 7,000 (ranging in age from 18 to 109) had taken at least one personality survey in the six years before and during the pandemic.
Based on these responses, overall neuroticism in the U.S. declined slightly in 2020 during the first year of the pandemic.The finding mirrors what the researchers found on a different dataset two years ago, when they reported neuroticism Adult numbers drop in first six weeks of pandemic. But the new findings include data for 2021 and 2022, which suggest the drop was short-lived.
Soutine of Florida State University in Tallahassee said the initial drop may have been due to a sense of solidarity that emerged in the early months of the health crisis and people blaming their concerns on the crisis rather than their own internal state. “In the second year, all support collapsed.”
Average neuroticism scores have since rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. But the researchers found that the situation is delicate. The 2020 decline was driven almost entirely by middle-aged participants and older adults. For both groups, neuroticism scores continued to decline over the next few years, albeit at a slower rate than before the pandemic. However, neuroticism scores for young adults in 2021 and beyond surpassed pre-pandemic levels.
Likewise, in 2021 and early 2022, conscientiousness and agreeableness scores also declined among middle-aged adults, but the declines were not as steep as those observed among younger adults.
The findings are troubling, Sutin said. “We know that these features predict a variety of long-term outcomes.”
For example, high neuroticism is associated with mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and loneliness. Low conscientiousness is associated with poor education, job, health and relationship outcomes.
Whether these personality changes will persist, though, remains to be seen. Damian said it could be that young people “missed the train” during a critical developmental period. Without the pandemic, maybe they would have earned a college degree or pursued a more lucrative career. Or maybe these people can still get to their designated site, just behind schedule.
“There are critical periods of development and then plasticity,” Damian said. “We don’t know how it will play out.”