Life under the jackboot of Covid-19:
Covid-19’s impact on personality

Since the nasty little virus we have called Covid-19 came to stay, there have been myriad questions. . . 

‘What is it?’

‘Where did it come from?’

‘How long is it staying?’

It’s like the 18 year old son of a distant friend (often with another friend in tow) who is on his Gap Year travels. They lob up and ask to stay for a couple of days. 6 months later they are still there. They are lovely people but. . .

But Covid-19 is not “lovely people”.  It is nasty.


Thank goodness for the team of expert immunologists who came together to develop the vaccines.


The vaccines, however, are just the tip of the iceberg. Everybody has been affected by Covid-19.  What has it been like for the rest of us?


Across the globe people have been looking at the effects of Covid-19.  And in this case, not the actual virus but the environment it created.  Pubs, hairdressers and restaurants were forced to close.  Schools were closed and the children sent home for “home schooling”.  A phrase that will forever strike fear into parents the world over.  Travel was cancelled. And businesses slowed and then closed.  Many may never reopen.  And this has raised questions. For example:
  • Will it change the person we are?
  • Will we cope with the stress?
  • Will it effect some people more than others?
Our passion is people or, more specifically, personality.  And so we were naturally keen to understand more about how these concerns may be impacted by Covid-19. . .


Will it change the person we are?

One question that seemed to worry people was whether the Covid-19 related stress would actually change the person they are.

This taps into a broader and regularly asked question about the stability of personality.  We get asked this at every personality workshop. And our response is always; personality is generally stable – however, we do caveat this to say “barring major trauma”.  Well, here we are, surrounded with major trauma all round.  So will we change?


There are conflicting views. For example:


Mirjam Stieger – Lifespan Developmental Psychology Laboratory at Brandeis University, in Massachusetts says;
“The many months of changes to our routines may have led to changes in our behaviour that will stick long after the pandemic has finished.” 


and Wiebke Bleidorn at the Personality Change Laboratory at the University of California, Davis.
“It’s likely that these unprecedented times shaped people’s personality traits to a certain degree as people were forced to leave their comfort zone and their daily routine.  It may lead to new norms, which may over time also shape our personalities.” 


But alternatively:


Rodica Damian, from the Personality Development and Success Laboratory at the University of Houston feels that:
“I don’t think there will be an average effect … a trend that the majority of people will show.”


Angelina Sutin, Florida State University says:
“There’s an unpublished study that looked for signs of personality change during the very early stage of the pandemic. It showed that most traits showed no average-level change at all, and contrary to expectations, average neuroticism actually fell slightly for those not in isolation, perhaps because people attributed feelings of stress to what was going on in the world, rather than to their own personality.”


Hogan Assessments announced:
Average personality test scores had not changed during the first weeks of lockdown, up until early May.


These thoughts are a mix of opinion and actual data.  We’ve got actual data.  What does it show for Facet5?


A sample of over 6000 profiles Jan to Oct 2019 vs Jan to Oct 2020. All profiles were completed in English and we applied a common Global norm base. We found no significant differences across all 5 main and 13 sub-factors. We, as a group, have not changed.

So it looks like we are not likely to become different people due to Covid-19.

Coping with the stress

It is now widely accepted that putting people under extreme stress has effects.  Short term and long term. And these affects have been noted for all time. . .


In the Epic of Gilgamesh (2500BC), the Sumerian king Gilgamesh witnesses the death of his closest friend, Enkidu and is tormented by the trauma, experiencing recurrent memories and nightmares. Greek Myths, Icelandic Sagas and Indian Stories talk of soldiers having recurrent battle dreams.  They have been noted in every account of battles through to the present.  It has been called ‘shell shock’, ‘soldiers heart’ or ‘feeble will’ and even ‘war neurotic’ (which my friend’s father was registered as after suffered badly in WWII). What a term.


The symptoms were all the same. And still are.  We now call it ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ or simply ‘PTSD’.  And we now know it doesn’t need a war.  Any trauma of magnitude can do it.  Accidents and assaults can provoke it.  So can losing your job. And many studies of the effects of Covid-19 show that they are indistinguishable from PTSD. Why? Well reasons for stress abound in lockdown:
  • Separation anxiety during isolation
  • There is a serious risk of infection
  • Fear of becoming sick or of losing loved ones
  • Prospect of financial hardship
These are all real and can happen very quickly.  In surveys, 29% of people report increased symptoms of poor mental health including:
  • Low mood,
  • Insomnia,
  • Stress,
  • Anxiety,
  • Anger,
  • Irritability,
  • Motional exhaustion,
  • Depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms.
Where parents were quarantined with children, 28% of quarantined parents warranted a diagnosis of “trauma-related mental health disorder”. That’s not the children’s fault.  It the effect of having your life turned over.


And all of this is more intense if the lockdown is strictly enforced.  This is not surprising.


I have had a relatively trouble-free isolation.  Actually, Australia has not been badly hit compared to others. But for what it is worth here are my three observations.  Note this is for people who had not been infected.


Phase 1: At the beginning it was almost an adventure.  People talked about how they were coping.  What they were stocking up on.  How they would ever use that much toilet paper.


Phase 2: Then there was some enthusiasm for “Working from Home” now known as WfH.  People set up offices and got big screens for their laptop.  And they found new ways of working.


Phase 3: Ennui.  Suddenly, about 3 months in, a lot of people started to talk about boredom and depression.  The fun had worn off.  They wanted to go out.  They wanted to see family.  I heard a lot of people asking “When will it be over?”  “Will I make it?”


So yes, people are suffering from the effects and they are very similar to PTSD.  And the treatments for PTSD are being applied wherever possible.


Will it affect some people more than others?


This is where it gets interesting.  When Covid-19 first appeared, there were immediate expectations in the press.  For example:
  • Will Extraverts struggle because they will not have their usual level of contact with others?
  • Will Introverts have a natural advantage because they will not be forced to spend time with people
We’ve tried to answer these questions. . .


We reached out to a large sample of people who had previously completed Facet5 questionnaires with a small survey – as follows. We collected standard demographic data including:
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Education
We also asked how the pandemic had affected them in terms of:
  • Isolation
  • Feelings of stress
We also asked what were the feelings that seemed amplified during the pandemic and which seemed less so.


The responses came mostly (73%) from women. Most were educated to Bachelor’s Degree or higher.



Key Question 1: How stressful have you found living through the Covid-19 Pandemic?

More than 75% of the people surveyed said they had found it “Somewhat stressful”, “Difficult” or “Very Stressful”.

What was interesting was the link to personality.







We (and everybody else) expected that people with higher Emotionality (more Anxious etc) would find the event more stressful, and they did. But those with higher Control (Careful, Disciplined and Dutiful) were even more affected. It seems that the disruption to routine and lifestyle had an even bigger impact than the anxiety and concern.

Key Question 2: To what extent did you stay at home during the Covid-19 pandemic?

This question was designed to see just how big the effect of Isolation was. What we found was surprising:






This was interesting. The strongest impact was from people with high Will (determined, assertive, independent). It seems such people had no problem staying at home. Having made a commitment, they stick to it.

Extraverts (high Energy) went in the opposite direction (although the significance was marginal). They didn’t really fall in line and do as they were asked. They found reasons to not to isolate regardless.

Other factors had insignificant effects. Even Control and Emotionality, which were certainly linked to how much stress people felt, did not affect how they managed to isolate when required. Note that in this we did not differentiate people by how strict their isolation was. As mentioned, a strictly imposed isolation policy appears to be more significant than a more relaxed, voluntary one.

So how have people been feeling?

As a final attempt to understand the impact of Covid-19 on people we asked them about the emotions they had experienced during Covid-19. This was phrased to focus on the period when most people would have been in lockdown of one sort or another.

Our list of adjectives was broad and covered most of the feelings that people were mentioning in the press and social media. Some of these were classed as “Positive” emotions while others were “Negative”. For example:

Negative emotions included:

  • Anxious
  • Disengaged
  • Irritated
  • Lethargic
  • Overwhelmed
  • Sad
  • Tearful
  • Tense

Positive emotions included:

  • Appreciative
  • Calm
  • Confident
  • Empathetic
  • Energised
  • Optimistic
  • Positive
  • Resilient

As expected, people varied a lot in what they felt most and least. However, there was an interesting trend when we compared people’s feelings to their Facet5 profiles. When we related the scores for Positive and Negative Emotions with Facet5 profiles, two stories emerged.

People who, in general, said they were feeling more positive (i.e. they ticked more Positive Emotions) had profiles that were relatively moderate. They looked like this:









People who said they experienced more negative emotions tended to look like this:










The biggest difference between the two is Control. It seems that under the increased constraints and restrictions of a Covid-19 lockdown, the people who struggle most are those with low Control.

Does this make sense? Well yes. A core aspect of Low Control is the freedom to do as you like. To not follow the rules and to be free. Personal freedom is at the core of low Control and the biggest impact of Covid-19 is to take freedom away.

So what have we found out?

It is clear that Covid-19 has effects well beyond the health effects we know about. We cannot overestimate the impact of the two and a half million people who have died. And we don’t yet know how people who have recovered or are recovering will do. What are the longer term effects?

Some thought that the changes would change us permanently. That we would emerge with different personalities. Happily, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Although the data is quite short term so far, personality change has not been seen. This is in keeping with most thinking on the stability of personality.

But from other research, including ours, we now know that there are impacts similar to PTSD which can be expected to go on for a long time. PTSD research has consistently found a link between Emotionality and PTSD so it shouldn’t be surprising that people with higher Emotionality reported a greater sense of stress during Covid-19.

What is interesting though is that another factor is as significant. Maybe more so. Control indicates the way a person wants to live their life. People with higher Control build a life which is quite orderly and managed. And they expect some continuity, so they know where they stand. People with lower Control like things to be more flexible. To go with the flow. To take things as they come. Inherent in this is not to be constrained and yet, that is exactly what Covid-19 does. It constrains.

This has larger effects at a population level. Other commentary and research is starting to show that nations that are more willing to do as they are told, to establish and follow guidelines, are the ones that survive better in lockdown. Taiwan, New Zealand and Australia did this. However, it remains to be seen whether they will also be the quickest to recover when the shackles are removed.

Author: Norman Buckley

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