The psychological development of young adults may be hit by the covid-19 pandemic.
In typical times, people tend to become more aware and gentler and less neurotic with age, which is a process known as psychological maturation. But in the United States, the pandemic appears to have reversed that personality trajectory, especially among adults under 30, researchers report on September 28. PLOS ONE. If those patterns continue, they could spell long-term trouble for this cohort, researchers say.
“You go through life better with authority, in coping with emotions and with others,” says personality psychologist Rodica Damiani of the University of Houston, who was not involved in this study. “What you see in these young people shows the opposite pattern of rare development.”
Personalities shape how people think, feel and act. Researchers often assess a person’s personality through five core traits: neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion, and openness to experience (SN: 9/1/21). Over time these characteristics change slightly in individuals; Neuroticism tends to decrease, for example, while agreeableness typically improves.
In a pandemic, though, those typical trend lines can change. Even after making the expected changes, the researchers in a new study observed about the value of the decade of personality change, across all student participants, averaged only in three years, but they go in the opposite direction of expectations. Young people showed the greatest change in certain characteristics. Middle-aged adults — 30 to 64 years old — showed the most change across all lines. The figures of older adults, meanwhile, remained 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 Bleidorn, who was not familiar with the study. “If you missed it from last year in high school, you can’t get this 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 are changing in response to major events, such as the 2020 presidential election and the ongoing pandemic. Among the researchers, about 7,000 people — aged from 18 to 109 — took a personality inventory once every six years before the pandemic and once during the pandemic.
Based on these responses, neuroticism overall in the United States fell slightly in 2020, the first year of the pandemic. That would mirror what researchers found with different data two years ago, when they reported that neuroticism in adults declined in the first six weeks of the pandemic. But the new findings include data from 2021 and 2022, which show that there is a dip in flow.
The initial dip is likely due to a sense of solidarity that has emerged during the health crisis in recent months, with people attributing their concerns to the crisis rather than their internal state, says Sutin, of Florida State University in Tallahassee. In the second year, all that support fell away.
Average neuroticism scores have 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 these 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 have surpassed pre-pandemic levels, however.
Similarly, base awareness and pleasantness also declined among middle-aged adults in 2021 and early 2022, but the drop was not as steep as that observed in young adults.
The findings are disturbing, says Sutin. “We know that these characteristics all predict long-term outcomes.”
For example, high neuroticism is linked to mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and feelings of loneliness. Low awareness is associated with poor educational, employment, health and relationship outcomes.
However, whether these personality changes persist remains to be seen. It’s possible that young adults “missed the train” at a critical time in their development, as Damian says. Maybe they would have gotten a college degree or gotten a more lucrative career without the pandemic. Or perhaps these may still arrive at the designated station, just behind schedule.
“There are critical periods and then plasticity,” says Damianus. “We don’t know how it’s going to play out.”
#pandemic #stunt #young #adults #personality #development