COVID-19 changed our personalities in the space of a year or two what would normally take a decade, a new study has found.

And not for the better – with declines in declines in openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness, as well as extroversion, measurable in 2021 and 2022 compared to pre-pandemic times.

“The changes were about one-tenth of a standard deviation, which is equivalent to about one decade of normative personality change,” publishing journal PLOS One said in a release this week.

Younger adults were hit hardest.

“Of most note, the personality of young adults changed the most, with marked increases in neuroticism and declines in agreeableness and conscientiousness,” the study said.

“That is, younger adults became moodier and more prone to stress, less cooperative and trusting, and less restrained and responsible.”

This is the opposite direction personality traits usually go, the scientists noted, despite the risk of the virus much greater for older people. 

There was a drop in neuroticism recorded early in the pandemic, which was unexpected. The scientists put this down to people already feeling nervous suddenly having a reason to, and no longer feeling out of place; “pandemic guidance” giving them “preventive behavior to engage in”; and “greater social cohesion early in the pandemic” bringing “a sense of belonging”.

“Early in the pandemic, when there was a lot of reporting on fear and anxiety about the virus in the media and on social media, individuals may have viewed themselves as less fearful and anxious than those around them: Individuals may have viewed themselves as less neurotic because the social norms around neuroticism shifted.”

But that all changed in 2021 and 2022, particularly in young people’s openness and agreeableness.

“These declines may have been, in part, a response to the social upheaval in response to the pandemic that was sharper in 2021–2022,” the study said.

“The continued uncertainty around the pandemic, particularly as it dragged into a second year, as well as the decline in mobility, may have led individuals to narrow their activities and worldviews. Likewise, there may have been a decrease in interest in art and artistic experiences because of less ability to engage in art due to closures of concert venues, museums, theaters, etc. 

“The move to online communication and entertainment and reliance on social media may have decreased exposure to new ideas.”

Misinformation may also have played a part, the authors said. 

While previous studies have found no widespread effect on personality from “collective stressful events” like earthquakes and hurricanes, the study says this particular event is different.

“The coronavirus pandemic has affected the entire globe and nearly every aspect of life.”

The data was taken from the longitudinal Understanding America Study.