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Experts: Pandemic, isolation can change your personality

With states enlisting stay-at-home orders as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the toll that staying home has taken on people has varied. Routines have been disrupted, while communication with friends and family has shifted to the virtual world.

And according to experts, such a deluge of changes can lead to shifts in people’s personalities.

Bill Chopik, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, said that while it might not seem like people generally change due to stress, the truth is that more often than not, they change in dramatic ways.

“Some people’s personalities suffer — they become more anxious, closed-off, and even meaner,” Chopik said. “However, some people’s personalities actually improve when placed in stressful circumstances. They become more resilient, generous, and wise.

“The exact reasons why stress affects people differently is unknown,” he added. “Some theories suggest the stress has to be enough to really change your worldview and how you interact with others, but not so stressful that it totally derails your life.”

Laurence Basirico, a sociology professor at Elon University, said nothing is black and white when it comes to the study of people. He noted that many people’s idea of self comes from how others view them.

Yet as social interaction has nearly come to a halt during the time of COVID-19, the world of reflection has become very limited.

“It depends on the situation — we’ve become so politicized and people get locked in their positions,” Basirico said. “In reality, people would probably be more reasonable if they looked at everyone’s situation.”

David Kolar, a psychology professor at the University of Mary Washington, said personalities remain relatively consistent throughout our lifetime.

“While personality certainly can change with age, we tend to keep our rank order on a trait,” he said. “For example, while research shows that we tend to get more conscientious as we get older, people who had higher levels of conscientiousness compared to others at younger ages tend to still have higher levels of conscientiousness compared to their peers as they get older.”

Kolar said personality changes can happen, but they can take time and effort. If someone is interested in taking time to focus on themselves and make a change, they can, but if they are unwilling to change, they are more unlikely to do so.

“Right now, an extrovert who seeks to be around others and is usually very active might be looking to see how they might change,” he explained. “But an introvert is likely relatively fine with some of the isolation measures we are seeing now. It is definitely the case that important life events can have an effect on our personality, and clearly something very important is happening right now with COVID-19. But people will react to it in different ways depending on where they are in their own lives right now.”

When it comes to isolation, Chopik said extended periods of it can have serious consequences because humans by nature are social and most depend on interaction to help frame their lives.

“There are plenty of ways that people can reach out and have social interactions, but most researchers wouldn’t be surprised if isolation has an impact on people’s well-being,” he said. “Whether isolation can fundamentally change who you are is harder to judge.

“Some of your personality comes from your genes; other parts of it come from what you do over really long stretches of time,” he continued. “It’s unlikely that the isolation we’re talking about will lead to long-lasting changes in personality, but it is possible. So, all that’s to say is that people’s well-being certainly suffers but your personality is harder to change.”

He then went on to note that someone’s personality can determine how they navigate through the pandemic. Some people are more attentive to their health and safety while others are more anxious and have more stressors to exacerbate that anxiety. While personality might not change, Chopik said, it can impact how people weather the storm.

Eric Hekler, an associate professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California San Diego, said many people are now in situations they have never experienced before. He said that people and context both matter while considering how the pandemic could impact their personalities, but people and context both change.

Hekler said he’s normally quite introverted but through teaching, he’s learned to become more extroverted and has learned to engage and gain energy from social interactions.

Wendy Stanyon, an associate professor at Ontario Tech University, said when exposed to a stressful situation over a long period of time, it can impact someone’s ability to work and decision making. It can also lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.

Chopik, meanwhile, said that research suggests that when people change during stress and adversity, that change is typically negative.

“But with all of the ancillary problems that go along with the COVID-19 situation, they might have long-lasting effects that enhance the darker parts of our personalities,” Chopik said. “Most modern-day personality researchers are likely optimistic that people’s personalities are unlikely to change really dramatically because of the stay-at-home orders.

“But if the situation enhances other stressful events in people’s lives,” he concluded, “then we might see dramatic changes in which people become more impatient, ornery, bad-tempered, and hard to stand.”

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