COVID-19 makes us more aggressive and dumb, researchers find
We still feel the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in many areas of our lives. For example, we have people who wear masks and those who constantly clean their hands with disinfectant.
The pandemic has left another trace in our lives for a long time. According to a recent study, we have become "dumb" due to COVID-19. After the pandemic, we've become aggressive and mean individuals, who are more argumentative, less diligent at home and work lives, less likely to strike up a conversation with a stranger or call an old friend, and less excited about new things.
The results were published in PLOS One on September 28.
As Business Insider reported, researchers looked at the so-called Big Five personality traits: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, and openness. They are called the "Big Five" because those traits have to be stable. However, with the pandemic, the balance all changed.
Under normal conditions, when the Big Five deteriorates from time to time (major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.), it can be regulated with various therapies. But according to the new study, the researchers found a surprising shift during the pandemic.
"Think about all the news stories last summer about how awful it was to fly and how disagreeable people were. Well, maybe this is contributing to it," explains Angelina Sutin, a behavioral scientist at Florida State University who was the lead author of the new paper.
"It's speculation. But when we look at what's going on with mental health and these anecdotal stories collectively, it's kind of all telling a similar story."
Before the pandemic, after the pandemic
Before COVID-19, most studies on disaster psychology concentrated on post-traumatic stress disorder or mental health. Examining the prevalence of a condition like depression or anxiety is very straightforward, but personality is different.
One issue is that people generally struggle to recall their previous personas. As a result, the Understanding America Study, a longitudinal data collection involving thousands of participants, was employed by Sutin's team. This study is conducted at the University of Southern California. That gave them a pre-pandemic baseline to compare their results.
Sutin seemed to have found some solid evidence. Her team found that the changes in the Big Five personality traits were about half as significant as the spike in despair and anxiety that occurred during the epidemic.
It just so happens that this represents a change of around the same size as you might anticipate in a patient receiving therapy. It appears that COVID-19 has changed us similarly to how visiting a therapist would, but negatively.
"This was an American sample, so looking at all of the events of the last two and a half years, a lot of things have been going on," Sutin says.
During the first months of the pandemic, Sutin's team found little personality change. Research also found that this situation changed daily compared to other disasters in the history of humanity.
"We did find was a decline in neuroticism, toward being a little bit less emotional and sensitive to stress," adds Sutin.
Five-factor model personality traits (neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness) are thought to be relatively impervious to environmental demands in adulthood. The coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented opportunity to examine whether personality changed during a stressful global event. Surprisingly, two previous studies found that neuroticism decreased early in the pandemic, whereas there was less evidence for change in the other four traits during this period. The present research used longitudinal assessments of personality from the Understanding America Study (N = 7,109; 18,623 assessments) to examine personality changes relatively earlier (2020) and later (2021–2022) in the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic levels. Replicating the two previous studies, neuroticism declined very slightly in 2020 compared to pre-pandemic levels; there were no changes in the other four traits. When personality was measured in 2021–2022, however, there was no significant change in neuroticism compared to pre-pandemic levels, but there were significant small declines in extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. The changes were about one-tenth of a standard deviation, which is equivalent to about one decade of normative personality change. These changes were moderated by age and Hispanic/Latino ethnicity, but not race or education. Strikingly, younger adults showed disrupted maturity in that they increased in neuroticism and declined in agreeableness and conscientiousness. Current evidence suggests the slight decrease in neuroticism early in the pandemic was short-lived and detrimental changes in the other traits emerged over time. If these changes are enduring, this evidence suggests population-wide stressful events can slightly bend the trajectory of personality, especially in younger adults.