As we emerge from lockdown, it’s best we reflect on how the experiences have changed us, for better and worse.
With large parts of Sydney emerging from lockdown, it is once again time to pause and reflect on the restrictions that are placed upon us. Positive or negative, for better or for worse, no single lockdown experience has been the same. There is, however, one universal aspect pertaining to all—an abrupt disruption of daily routine.
Just how much of a mark will this period of time leave on us? For much of psychology’s history, personality was considered concrete, at least beyond early childhood. The last few decades, however, have seen compelling research form a new consensus that while personality traits are relatively stable, they aren’t completely set in stone. Rather, they continue to evolve throughout life and in response to major life events.
It is entirely possible that you will be left changed by the lockdown.
“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,” says Mirjam Stieger of the Lifespan Developmental Psychology Laboratory at Brandeis University. Stieger has been working on an app to help people deliberately change their habits.
It is hard to determine how much people will have changed and in what ways; a lack of longitudinal data and the assortment of lockdown experiences are to blame.
“I don’t think there will be an average effect … a trend that the majority of people will show,” says Rodica Damian, from the Personality Development and Success Laboratory at the University of Houston.
While there might not be a tangible “lockdown personality” per se, there exist prior findings that hint at ways we might have been changed idiosyncratically, dependent on our specific circumstances. For example, the pandemic lockdown may have sparked a phenomenon known as “The Michelangelo Effect”, where we are more likely to develop into the kind of person we want to be if we’re with a close romantic partner who supports and encourages us to behave in line with our aspirations – not unlike a sculptor helping to reveal our ideal self.
Wiebke Bleidorn, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the Personality Change Laboratory at the University of California, Davis, believes that people in loving relationships might also have had the chance to grow closer and deepen their bonds, on top of having more time to reflect on life and their priorities.
“This time of reflection might lead to increases in ‘self-concept clarity’ – the degree to which people have coherent beliefs about themselves and their goals in life,’ she says.
By contrast, it is likely that those stuck indoors for months in an unhappy relationship will have had negative effects forced upon their personalities. “For example, there is some evidence that being in an unhappy marriage (independent of lockdown) is associated with declines in spouses’ self-esteem and happiness,” says Bleidorn.
On the whole, however, the lockdown data available to date paints a picture of human resilience. Angelina Sutin, a psychologist at Florida State University, led an as yet unpublished study that examined signs of personality change during the very early stage of the pandemic in the US. It showed that most traits showed no average-level change at all. Additionally, and contrary to expectations, it was also found that average neuroticism actually fell slightly for those not in isolation, likely due to people attributing stress not to their own personality but rather to what was going on in the world. Similarly, Hogan Assessments, a personality testing company, released preliminary data from the US indicating average personality test scores had not changed during the first weeks of lockdown.
“Most people seem to be pretty good at finding environments that fit their extraversion or can dial it up or down when asked to,” says Bleidorn. “Social media, communication technology and other technological developments have made it possible to socialise virtually. I imagine that extroverted people are more likely to take advantage of such opportunities.”
Bleidorn and Damian are only two among many leading high-quality, longitudinal personality change projects. However, it might be some time before we arrive at a clearer idea of just how much the pandemic has changed us; science is a notoriously slow business. For now, the initial signs are that the isolation aspect of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown might not in itself have changed our personalities in a deep way.