Kendra Leon

(CN) — More than two years of social distancing, masking, lockdowns and distance learning has taken its toll on young adults in ways researchers didn't expect — the pandemic has altered their personalities.

For years, medical and psychological experts have believed personality traits are generally resistant to collective stressful events such as earthquakes and hurricanes. But a study published Wednesday in PLOS ONE indicates the pandemic altered the trajectory of personalities across the United States.

Led by Angelina Sutin of Florida State University College of Medicine, a team of researchers had 7,109 people enrolled in the online Understanding America Study complete longitudinal assessments of personality.

The group was 41.2% male, ranged in age from 18 to 109, and were considered a wonderful data resource.

“That is, it is unusual in that participants in the study had completed personality measures before the pandemic and then the same participants completed the same personality measure during the pandemic,” Sutin said in an email.

The researchers used a five-factor model of personality traits — neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness. In doing so, they also studied these personality traits throughout different stages of the pandemic. The researchers analyzed 18,623 assessments starting with years before the pandemic (May 2014 to February 2020), continuing with the early pandemic period (March to December 2020), to the current stage of the pandemic (2021 to 2022).

Although the researchers did find relatively few personality changes between pre-pandemic and 2020 personality traits, with only a small decline in neuroticism, the same did not hold for the current stage.

According to the study, the 2021-2022 data showed changes in extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness at one-tenth of a standard deviation. In the span of a year, the young adults underwent the equivalent of a decade of normative personality change according to the researchers.

The changes in younger adults were more blatant than in other groups. The younger adults in the group showed disrupted maturity in the form of increased neuroticism and decreased agreeableness and conscientiousness. In comparison, the oldest group of adults showing no statistically significant changes in traits.

Sutin acknowledged the researchers do not yet know what specifically caused these changes, but she pointed to a noteworthy pattern.

“During the first year of the pandemic, when there was more of an emphasis on community and coming together to the fight the virus, there were only modest changes in personality and mostly in a beneficial direction, whereas in the second year of the pandemic, when there was less social cohesion and more backlash, there were more changes in personality, and mostly in the opposite direction,” Sutin said.

The authors concluded that if these changes continue, the country can expect a continued slight bend in the trajectory of personality, with younger adults at higher risk.

“The traits that showed the most change in younger adulthood — neuroticism and conscientiousness — are also the traits that are associated with many important outcomes, including educational and career success, relationships, and mental and physical health. The changes were relatively small, but the cumulative impact could be significant if the changes persist,” Sutin said.