One of the many business myths I have been fighting for two decades is that results from (often unscientific) personality tests are valid for someone’s entire career. On average, personality changes about 25% over one’s lifetime. New evidence shows environmental factors can speed up those changes.
An international team of researchers analyzed data on 7,109 Americans. The subjects took a personality assessment called the Big Five Inventory two to six years before, and then early or later during, the coronavirus-19 pandemic. “Big 5” tests show where people fall on each of five continuums, like fully extraverted to fully introverted, listed here with example behaviors from the study:
- Openness—“has an active imagination”
- Conscientiousness—“is a reliable worker”
- Extraversion—“is talkative”
- Agreeableness—“is generally trusting”
- Neuroticism—“can be moody”
Many people, including scientists, thought people might become more neurotic during the pandemic lock-downs due to fear of the virus. Surprisingly, a few studies suggested the opposite: on average, neuroticism went down! The other traits were unaffected. This team’s data showed the same trends. The scientists offer no explanation, merely noting that many people with anxiety reported it got better during the lock-downs. My guess is they no longer had to deal with the many triggers they face on leaving home. This is consistent with the finding that later in the pandemic—after the lock-downs were lifted—neuroticism in the study sample was back to normal.
But there was another surprise: By the later years, the other four traits had gone down. The amount of change over a few years was equal to the amount usually taking a decade! Age made a difference, though:
- Those 65 or older had the biggest drop in neuroticism early, remaining down at the end, but no change in the other four traits.
- Middle-aged people also were less neurotic early, but got less so, plus they had significant declines in the other four.
- People under 30 had relatively large declines on all five traits, becoming less neurotic, but also less conscientious, extraverted, agreeable, and open to new experiences.
There was little or no difference in COVID-related changes by gender or education. Only one ethnic group differed from the average trends. Latinx subjects were no less neurotic on average. They also had bigger drops than non-Latinx folks in agreeableness early in the pandemic, and in the other three traits later. This goes to one of my criticisms of using personality tests for hiring: Personality is affected by culture, so you are discriminating against groups whose average traits differ from the ones you are looking for.
The scientists point out COVID or the lock-downs may not have been the cause, or only cause, of these changes. Other big things happened in America in those years, like the George Floyd protests and the attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Related to the former, note that personality changes were similar for non-Latinx blacks and whites.) And COVID alters the brain, so that could be a cause, especially if personality changes persist in later years.
Regardless, these data are yet more evidence that personality is not stable, and can be affected by one’s environment. In fact, as I have written for years, one’s behavior in a given moment is more due to environment and situation than to personality. Yet again, I urge managers to avoid the “Personality Scam” and focus on the levers that actually guide behavior trends in the workplace: structure, policies, processes and other practices that affect all workers.
Source: Sutin, Angelina R., Yannick Stephan, Martina Luchetti, Damaris Aschwanden, Ji Hyun Lee, Amanda A. Sesker, and others, ‘Differential Personality Change Earlier and Later in the Coronavirus Pandemic in a Longitudinal Sample of Adults in the United States’, PLOS ONE, 17.9 (2022), e0274542 <https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0274542>.