Young people’s psychological development may have suffered 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 trajectoryespecially among adults under 30, researchers reported Sept. 28 in PLUS ONE. If these patterns continue, it could lead to long-term problems for this cohort, the researchers say.

“As life goes on, you get better at being responsible, dealing with emotions, and getting along with others,” says personality psychologist Rodika Damian of the University of Houston, who was not involved in this study. “The fact that you see the opposite pattern in these young adults indicates delayed development.”

Personalities shape the way people think, feel and behave. Researchers often assess a person’s personality profile along five main 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 tends to improve.

However, the pandemic may change these typical trends. Even after factoring in expected changes, the researchers in the new study observed about a decade’s worth of personality change, averaged across all study participants, in just three years—but in the opposite direction of what was expected. Young adults show the greatest change in certain traits. Middle-aged adults — ages 30 to 64 — show more changes in all traits. Meanwhile, the personality of the elderly remains 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 much higher” than in later life, says Blaidorn, who was not involved in the study. “If you miss your senior year of high school, you can’t get it back.”

To examine personality change in the United States before and during the pandemic, personality psychologist Angelina Sutin and colleagues analyzed data from A Study in Understanding America.

This study examines how attitudes and behaviors across the country are changing in response to major events, such as the 2020 presidential election and the ongoing pandemic. Among those surveyed, approximately 7,000 people — ages 18 to 109 — took a personality test at least once in the six years before the pandemic and once during the pandemic.

Based on these responses, overall neuroticism in the United States fell slightly in 2020, the first year of the pandemic. This finding echoes what the researchers found with a different data set two years ago when they reported on this neuroticism decreased in adults during the first six weeks of the pandemic. But the new findings include data from 2021 and 2022 that show the decline was fleeting.

That initial decline is likely due to a sense of solidarity that emerged in the earlier months of the health crisis, with people attributing their anxieties 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.”

Since then, mean neuroticism scores have returned to pre-pandemic levels. But the picture is nuanced, the researchers found. The 2020 immersion was run almost entirely by middle-aged and elderly participants. For these two groups, neuroticism scores continued to decline in subsequent years, albeit at a slower rate than before the pandemic. However, neuroticism scores among young adults in 2021 and beyond surpassed pre-pandemic levels.

Similarly, Conscientiousness and Agreeableness scores also declined among middle-aged adults in 2021 and early 2022, but the decline was not as sharp as that seen among young adults.

The findings are troubling, Sutin says. “We know that these traits predict all kinds of long-term outcomes.”

For example, high neuroticism is associated with mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and feelings of loneliness. And low conscientiousness is associated with poor outcomes in education, work, health, and relationships.

Still, it remains to be seen whether these personality changes persist. It’s possible that young adults “missed the train” during a critical period of development, Damian says. Maybe they would have gotten a college degree or pursued a more lucrative career without the pandemic. Or maybe those people can still get to their designated stop, just behind schedule.

“There are critical periods of development and then there is plasticity,” says Damian. “We don’t know how it’s going to play out.”

The pandemic may be stunting young adults’ personality development

Previous articleInvestors pay less (per user) for apps chasing TikTok’s fame — the information
Next articleCarbonfuture invests €5.5 million in improving its carbon credit removal platform