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How has personality affected people’s mental health during the pandemic?

Covid-19 has taken a heavy toll on everyone’s wellbeing, but we have all coped in different ways. Those of us whose stronger personality traits are extraversion and openness have experienced greater declines in mental health; those whose stronger trait is agreeableness have coped better.

While we might first associate Covid-19 with its effects on physical health, the experience for many people has been as much about how it has affected their mental health. Fear of infection, uncertainty about the future, curtailment of social interactions and restrictions on daily life – all impose a toll on mental health.

In the UK, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the share of the adult population experiencing some form of depression was 19% in November 2020 and 21% in January to March 2021. That number was 10% before the Covid-19 pandemic.

But not everyone was affected to the same extent. The question of whether Covid-19 affects the mental health of individuals in different ways is open and compelling. We know that the pandemic’s impact on wellbeing has varied across age, gender and ethnicity.

Growing evidence suggests that personality also plays an important role. In particular, individuals with more extrovert and open personalities – especially women and ethnic minorities – suffered greater declines in their mental health during the pandemic.

Those with more agreeable personalities have been less affected in comparison. Individuals with more neurotic personalities, who are typically more likely to suffer depression, do not seem to have experienced particularly severe mental health deterioration.

What does the evidence say?

Several studies have explored the pandemic’s impact on mental health among individuals of different ages, genders and ethnicities. But much less is known about the varying effects of Covid-19 on different personality types.

Personality traits are commonly measured across five dimensions according to the ‘Big Five’ taxonomy (Goldberg, 1993; Digman, 2014; Markon et al, 2005). These are:

  • Extraversion (outgoing/energetic versus solitary/reserved).
  • Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate versus critical/rational).
  • Openness to experience (inventive/curious versus consistent/cautious).
  • Conscientiousness (efficient/organised versus extravagant/careless).
  • Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous versus resilient/confident).

There has been an abundance of evidence linking personality traits to mental health more generally. A review of 175 studies published from 1980 to 2007 finds that common mental disorders are strongly linked to personality and have similar trait profiles (Kotov et al, 2010). Neuroticism is the strongest predictor of common mental disorders among personality traits, but several others (such as conscientiousness and extraversion) also showed substantial effects, independent of neuroticism.

Apart from mental disorders, which are indicators of bad mental health, positive indicators of subjective wellbeing (for example, happiness and life satisfaction) are linked to personality traits in the opposite direction (Watson and Clark, 1992; Diener and Lucas, 1999; Proto and Rustichini, 2015).

More recently, focusing on the Covid-19 period, two studies in Canada and Japan report a negative effect of neuroticism and a positive effect of extraversion on psychological wellbeing (Shokrkon and Nicoladis, 2021; Qian and Yahara, 2020).

But these studies do not provide direct evidence of how Covid-19 has changed the relationship between mental health and personalities. For that, data are needed to track the same individuals and monitor their mental health both before (that is, the baseline period) and during the pandemic.

A study of 484 first-year students at the University of Vermont during Covid-19 examines how personality traits affected certain wellbeing indicators by May 2020, using January 2020 as the baseline period (Rettew et al, 2021). This study finds that extraversion and openness both negatively affected mental health.

For example, higher levels of extraversion have been found to be related to decreases in mood as the pandemic progressed. This contrasts with those with lower extraversion, for whom there was a slight increase in mood over time. But the study does not find that neuroticism had a negative effect on wellbeing (it actually reports a positive effect). Further, it reports a negative effect of agreeableness, in that higher levels of agreeableness were associated with more pronounced decreases in mood, but this effect is only modest in size.

While this study provides new evidence on how Covid-19 affects mental health, it does not use a clear pre-Covid-19 baseline to identify precisely the deterioration of mental health. Another recent study uses data on 5,583 individuals from the UK Household Longitudinal Study, which tracks a representative sample of the UK population before (in 2017-19) and during Covid-19 (at seven different points in time during the pandemic) (Proto and Zhang, 2021).

The study measures mental health across 12 symptoms using GHQ-12, a psychometric screening tool to identify common psychiatric conditions. Higher scores indicate more negative symptoms and hence worse mental health.

Before the pandemic, the average person in the UK had 1.46 symptoms; in April 2020, this increased to 2.45 symptoms. From April 2020 to January 2021, the path of mental health deterioration observed was V-shaped.

Figure 1 shows a dramatic rise of about one unit (that is, one symptom) in GHQ-12 in April 2020, then a decline during the late spring and early summer and an increase again in the autumn of 2020 and January 2021. This roughly mirrors the evolution of the infections and restrictions, particularly nation-wide lockdowns.

The average mental health deterioration (that is, average GHQ-12 changes) over the entire period from April 2020 to January 2021 is around 0.66 symptoms – in other words, two out of three individuals experienced one more symptom on average.

Figure 1: Mental health deterioration in the Covid-19 period, in total and among individuals with different personality traits

Source: Proto and Zhang, 2021
Note: The changes in GHQ-12 represent mental health deterioration between the pre-Covid-19 wave (2017-19) and each wave during the Covid-19 period (April 2020 to January 2021). The black line in the top left panel represents the overall average, while the other panels report the averages among subjects with the top (red lines) and bottom (blue lines) 25% score in each personality trait. GHQ-12 index is the number of symptoms on a scale of 0–12. ?? and ? next to the months denote statistical significance of the difference between the two lines at 0.05, and 0.1 levels respectively.

The other five panels of Figure 1 present the GHQ-12 evolution for individuals scoring high and low in each personality trait (more precisely, belonging to top and bottom 25% of each personality score). The five panels reveal clear differences in mental health deterioration for individuals at the top and bottom ends of all five traits. In particular, individuals scoring high in openness and low in agreeableness seem to have experienced stronger mental health deterioration than their counterparts at the other extremes.

Neuroticism seems to affect individuals in the expected direction: individuals scoring high in neuroticism experienced worse mental health deterioration than those with lower scores (although as we will explain below this finding is not particularly robust). Extraversion seems to have affected individuals more heavily during the first lockdown, and conscientiousness in the second wave of the pandemic.

These results show that openness is a strong predictor of mental health deterioration during the pandemic period. This is the trait that reflects preferences for exploration and new experiences – indeed, this trait is often called ‘openness to experience’ (DeYoung et al, 2005; DeYoung and Gray, 2009).

The pandemic period restricted people’s activities and social interactions, particular when stay-at-home orders were in place and non-essential businesses were closed. The limited opportunities to have new experiences or seek new sensations can explain why those with more open personalities experienced greater declines in their mental health.

In addition, openness is a particularly strong negative predictor of mental health for women and ethnic minorities – a striking result that requires further research to understand.

Agreeableness reflects a tendency to maintain social stability. For this reason, an individual with a more agreeable personality was more likely to be able to cope well in the constrained environment during lockdowns and under social distancing restrictions (DeYoung and Gray, 2009).

But at the same time, individuals scoring high in agreeableness should have a general altruistic tendency, and be interested in and considerate of others’ needs and feelings. During the pandemic, the knowledge that other people – either within the family or outside – are suffering for various reasons can negatively affect individuals with a more agreeable personality.

These two effects operate in opposite directions, so it is hard to predict precisely how agreeable individuals’ mental health might be affected by Covid-19. The evidence that more agreeable people experienced relatively better mental health during Covid-19 suggests that the first effect is stronger than the second.

Extraversion is, generally speaking, a trait related to sensitivity to social rewards (Depue and Morrone-Strupinsky, 2005). Therefore, in an environment where social interactions are restricted, it is natural to expect that extrovert individuals would be particularly negatively affected. The evidence here suggests that this seems to be true only during the first part of the Covid-19 period, when the first nation-wide lockdown in the UK was in place.

A possible explanation is that extrovert individuals managed to adapt to this situation after the first lockdown, resorting to alternative ways of seeking social rewards, such as through social media platforms or socialising online. Among ethnic minorities, extraversion is a stronger predictor of mental health deterioration than among white British individuals.

Neuroticism is linked to higher sensitivity to negative emotions such as anger, hostility or depression. For this reason, the personality trait is associated with sensibility to negative outcomes and threats that should be pervasive during the pandemic (DeYoung and Gray, 2009). Surprisingly, there is only weak evidence of this.

While there are some notable differences shown in Figure 1 for individuals with high and low neuroticism, these differences can be largely explained away by changes in circumstances (for example, employment changes), so this has less to do with Covid-19 in and of itself.

A possible answer is that neuroticism is a strong negative predictor of mental health deterioration in general, and individuals with highly neurotic personality have normally experienced several negative shocks in the course of their lives. As a result, there might be a kind of habituation effect at play.

Another possibility is that individuals with neurotic personalities experience many mental health symptoms already and that further deterioration is not captured by the GHQ-12 questionnaire.

The notable effects of extraversion and openness and the lack of a strong effect of neuroticism on mental health are consistent with the results of field experiments (Giuntella et al, 2021). These show that disruptions to lifestyle emerge as a leading risk factor for depression during Covid-19, whereas there is little relationship between disruptions and mental health before the pandemic. This suggests an overall shift in risk factors for depression during the pandemic compared with before.

Arguably, those with more open and extrovert personalities experienced more disruptions to their lifestyles and thus faced worse mental health. Standard predictors of depression, such as a highly neurotic personality, became less important during the pandemic.

Conscientiousness reflects a tendency to maintain motivational stability. For this reason, conscientious individuals are more able to overcome the practical constraints and to manage negative feelings due to the pandemic more effectively.

On the other hand, conscientious individuals have preferences to make long-term ambitious plans, something impossible to achieve in a highly uncertain environment, hence there is no clear reason to expect a positive or negative effect. Once changes in circumstances (for example, employment changes) are taken into account, there is no clear evidence suggesting that conscientiousness has a differential effect on mental health during Covid-19.

What does this mean for policy?

There is widespread evidence that mental health has been severely affected by the pandemic (Banks and Xu, 2020; Blanchflower and Bryson, 2021; Brodeur et al, 2021; Daly et al, 2020; Ettman et al, 2020; Proto and Quintana-Domeque, 2021). Studies have also shown that different groups, such as women, young people and ethnic minorities, have been disproportionately affected. In a similar vein, understanding how different personalities have been affecting during the pandemic will be important to inform policy.

First, it can lead to identification of at-risk groups as well as more personalised psychological or psychiatric treatments, based on a patient’s individual profile. Since mental health is likely to remain a key issue in the post-Covid-19 period (Aknin et al, 2021), it is crucial to identify the individuals that have suffered greater declines in their mental health and, more generally, to shed further light on what works for improving mental health.

Second, it can highlight the unintended consequences of Covid-19 restrictions. Lockdowns were effective in bringing case numbers down to a more manageable level, and easing the pressure on the NHS, but they also came with significant economic costs and knock-on effects on other healthcare provision.

In the coming months, more drastic interventions such as lockdown may become less feasible, and more nuanced and less intrusive interventions will be more appealing. These interventions would require a more calculated approach, carefully weighing costs and benefits, of which mental health impacts would be an important component.

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Authors: Eugenio Proto and Anwen Zhang
Photo by Matthew Pablico on Unsplash
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