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Update: How did personality affect mental health during the pandemic?

Different personality traits affected people’s responses to the lockdown and social restriction measures introduced during the pandemic – and how their mental health fared. Evidence from those times can help to inform more effective and tailored treatments to improve wellbeing.

The period of the Covid-19 pandemic can be viewed as a kind of natural experiment, in which a stress test of individuals and society was naturally induced. It has enabled a number of studies looking at how people deal with tough situations, and how their personalities affect their mental health in such scenarios (including Proto and Zhang, 2021 for the UK and Zhang et al, 2023 for China).

The evidence from this research indicates that individuals who have a more open personality tended to have a tougher time with their mental health during the pandemic. This pattern applied in both the UK and China. Openness is a personality trait that reflects preferences for exploration and new experiences – indeed, this trait is often called openness to experience.

Data from China Family Panel Studies – a main country-representative survey – show that in China, a difference in openness of two standard deviations (roughly speaking, the difference between individuals at the opposite extremes of this personality trait) corresponds to more symptoms of depression, an increase of about 0.1 on the eight-item Centre for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D).

In the UK, a two standard deviation increase in openness might mean on average 0.46 more symptoms on the 12-item General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12). The UK evidence is based on data from Understanding Society.

Both the CES-D and the GHQ-12 are considered reliable indicators of mental health pathologies. They are based on self-reporting of typical symptoms of mental health problems.

One surprising finding is that during the Covid-19 period, having a more neurotic personality did not necessarily mean worse mental health in the UK, and it actually lessened the impact in China.

Further, in the UK, being more conscientious seems to have had a positive effect on mental health; whereas being more extrovert seems to have had a negative effect. In China, neither conscientiousness nor extraversion seem to have had any effect.

These differences in how personality traits affected mental health during the pandemic in the UK compared with China deserve more investigation.

What does the evidence teach us about personality traits?

Personality traits are often grouped into five dimensions according to what experts call the ‘big five’ taxonomy (for example, Costa and McGrae, 2008). 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).

Studies show how being open can lead to mental health challenges in an environment of strong restrictions like those introduced in response to the pandemic.

This confirms that people with an open personality are often creative, curious and seeking new adventures – hence the pandemic’s limitations on experiences might affect them more.

Surprisingly, high neuroticism, which typically leads to more sensitivity to negative emotions, didn’t necessarily result in worse mental health during the pandemic. This suggests that because more neurotic individuals are more sensitive to crisis in general, they may have learned to adapt faster and better to the situation.

The two studies show differences that emerged between the two countries. But it is crucial to remember that we should interpret the findings carefully due to the huge difference in population and size between the UK and China.

The trait of agreeableness, which is associated with having good social skills, might have helped people to cope in a constrained environment during lockdowns. But as agreeable individuals are also more compassionate, the events of the pandemic could also make them empathise more with others' suffering, affecting them negatively.

In the UK, the first effect seems stronger, hence more agreeable individuals coped better; while in China, both effects seem to have balanced each other out, so no difference is detectable.

The trait of extraversion, which is usually linked to enjoying social interactions, might affect mental health negatively when social contacts are restricted. This effect is observed in the UK but not in China. This could be partially explained by the fact that extrovert individuals are thought to be better at adapting to new situations.

How reliable is this evidence?

The evidence from these studies relies on two comprehensive datasets that represent their respective countries.

For the UK study, the data are from the UK Household Longitudinal Study, also known as Understanding Society. The analysis was done on a merger of seven waves of the Covid-19 survey conducted between April 2020 and January 2021 with the pre-pandemic wave nine of the main survey spanning from 2017 to 2019.

The Chinese study primarily draws data from the 2018 and 2020 waves of the China Family Panel Studies (CFPS). The pre-pandemic 2018 wave was collected from June 2018 to May 2019, and the 2020 wave data were gathered from July to December 2020. As a result, both data sets specifically capture the initial phase of the pandemic crisis.

Are there other recent studies on the same question?

There are only a few studies that explore how personality influenced responses to the pandemic. One study using the Chinese CFPS dataset looked to understand how Covid-19 restrictions affected smoking habits and how personality might have played a role in this behaviour (Cai and Zhou, 2022).

Another discovered that people's attitudes, and maybe even their personalities, shape how these restrictions affected mental health (Giuntella et al, 2021).

A separate study looked at first-year students at the University of Vermont during the pandemic (Rettew et al, 2020). It assessed how personality traits affected students’ wellbeing, using January 2020 as a starting point.

The results are similar to the UK study discussed above. They show that higher levels of extraversion and openness were linked to reduced mental wellbeing as the pandemic continued. For those who are less extrovert, their mood improved slightly over time.

Similarly, in line with the UK study, this research also discovered that neuroticism did not have a negative effect on wellbeing and even showed a positive impact, echoing findings in the China study. Additionally, it reported a minor decrease in mood associated with higher levels of agreeableness, but this effect wasn’t very strong.

What does this mean for policy?

This evidence can significantly inform policy-making. It helps to identify groups that are more vulnerable to mental health challenges during crises. This in turn can help psychological or psychiatric treatments to be tailored to an individual's personality traits.

As we move beyond the Covid-19 era, mental health is expected to remain a critical concern (Aknin et al, 2021). As a result, it is vital to pinpoint those who have experienced the most significant declines in their mental wellbeing.

A recent editorial inThe Lancet highlights the pressing mental health issues faced in China, stating that these exist against a broader backdrop of largely unaddressed mental health disorders.

This evidence could steer approaches toward more focused and targeted interventions aimed at addressing these critical mental health challenges.

Where can I find out more?

Who are experts on this question?

Author: Eugenio Proto
Image: fizkes for iStock
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