Kitchener-Waterloo·HAPPINESS COLUMN

How personality traits can help or hinder during pandemic: Jennifer Moss

Research has revealed how different personalities are coping with COVID-19 lockdowns – and suggest how you can fare better by practicing traits and skills that don’t come naturally.
Sign at the Doors Pub, in Hamilton, Ont. during the COVID-19 lockdown in Ontario. (Doors Pub/Facebook)

New research has discovered that certain personality traits have equipped people to cope better with social isolation and lockdowns – but you may be surprised by which traits they are.

When it comes to defining personality traits, for the past several decades the prevailing model has been what's called the Big Five: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. The acronym for this model is OCEAN.

First, let's dig deeper into the definitions of each.

  • Openness: People high in this trait are often described as imaginative, insightful, adventurous, curious, and eager to learn new things and enjoy new experiences. People low in this trait dislike change and can be resistant to new ideas.

  • Conscientiousness: This trait is identified by higher levels of thoughtfulness and by good impulse control, as well as a love of planning ahead, schedules and deadlines. People high in this trait tend to think about how their behavior affects others. People low in this trait dislike structure and schedules, and tend to be messy – they don't put stuff away, and they procrastinate or don't finish tasks.

  • Extroversion: Extroverts are outgoing and being around people gives them energy. They are highly sociable and known to be talkative – they can sometimes say things before thinking. On the other hand, introverts can feel exhausted after a lot of socializing. They may be uncomfortable starting conversations or making small talk – they tend to think before speaking.

  • Agreeableness: This personality type is defined by trust, kindness and other pro-social behaviors. People high in this trait tend to be more cooperative, while those low in this trait tend to be more competitive and sometimes even manipulative.

  • Neuroticism: Characterized by sadness, moodiness and emotional instability. People high in this trait tend to experience mood swings, anxiety, irritability and sadness. Those low in this trait tend to be more stable and emotionally resilient. 

Personality role in crisis coping 

Studies published during the pandemic are showing that personality plays a huge role in how we do or don't cope with difficult situations such as lockdowns. 

According to Andreas Kluth, a columnist for Bloomberg who recently wrote about this topic, "there are other factors that play a role of course – like whether we've been infected, grief from a major loss, age (youth are suffering more from depression and anxiety) and unemployment." And yet, the ingrained patterns and behaviors from our personality types often help or hinder us in a crisis. 

One of my favorite researchers, Dr. Daniel Kahneman, who wrote the book Thinking Fast and Slow, has a theory that we essentially have two systems of thinking. 

System 1 is the brain's automatic, intuitive and unconscious thinking mode. It requires little energy or attention, but it is often prone to bias. System 1 is more influential and guides our day-to-day decisions. System 2 is a slow, controlled and analytical method of thinking where reason dominates.

This theory suggests that we resort to our base personalities in the moment. And, since we are all in this day-to-day, not at all future-focused existence right now, the current situation makes us rely more on automatic thinking. 

Personality that fares worst during lockdowns

It was assumed that introverts would find the pandemic an answer to their pleas for more solitude – and at first, that was the case. Studies showed that introverts were more emotionally healthy in the first three months of lockdown. 

However, over time introversion became associated with more loneliness, anxiety and depression.

Some have suggested that being stuck inside with others all the time is overly stimulating. On the other hand, one person from our research said that work used to help get her out of her shell – her one close friend always made her day. Now she has no one to connect with. 

We also found that, for introverts working from home, being on video conferencing all day is causing sensory overload.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, neuroticism was strongly correlated with more anxiety and worse depression. A global pandemic is certain to increase unease in a person already prone to worrying.

However, a surprising finding in the research is that openness was also associated with increased anxiety in isolation. Some researchers saw that lack of creative rest and loss of novel experiences were negatively impacting people high in the openness trait. 

I can attest to this. I am an adventurer and traveller, appreciative of new experiences, and for me, that feeling of being in the film Groundhog Day has been trying. I've experienced boredom during the pandemic, and it has been hard on me. If exploring and adventure-seeking are part of who you are – this has not been your year.

Personality that copes best in lockdowns

Again unsurprisingly,  at the beginning of lockdown extroverts were struggling. That lack of fuel from social connections was challenging. It still is, and many extroverts are longing to be back in person with their social circle. 

However, extroverts tend to be more optimistic and happier in general – and that became their buffer against the stress of the pandemic.

Agreeableness has helped hedge against both anxiety and depression because it can fuel the positive effects of extroversion. And being emotionally and socially flexible has been a real advantage in the middle of so much uncertainty.

The big winner in the pandemic personality trait sweepstakes – according to Kluth – is clear. The more conscientious people are, the less anxious and depressed they were when stuck at home. This makes sense. People that score highly on this trait are better at sticking to routines that provide structure during endless days of working or studying remotely. 

Kluth reminds us that conscientiousness, or what can be referred to as self-discipline, is very helpful. It gets us up out of our chairs to workout after a long day or helps us keep the glasses of wine for the weekends versus indulging every night of the week. It also pushes us to meet our deadlines. 

This trait has, however, been severely tested this year, so if you were high in conscientiousness already, that has really helped you.

If personality traits are hardwired, how do we change?

Psychologist Richard Levak says that, first, we have to recognize which pieces of our personality are influencing our lives. 

If I am a grouchy, slightly suspicious type, and I am always getting fired because I get into arguments with co-workers and always blame others, then I need to realize that I have to change something in myself. Makes sense, right?

To give an example for the current moment, since conscientiousness is the clear winner for coping with COVID-19 lockdowns – let's borrow the skills that come naturally to those high in that trait.

I've been saying this for the past year: set a schedule. 

Do your best to plan for the day and the week – make the plan flexible, so there is no negative self-talk if you don't cross everything off your list, but create small goals and stick to them. 

Conscientiousness grows as people become better at managing their jobs and relationships.

If your introversion is making you feel lonely and isolated, ensure you're not shutting people out and becoming further disconnected. Nurture a relationship with one safe and trusted friend. 

Practice agreeableness by: 

  • Asking more questions (this gives empathy a workout).
  • Asking how you can help someone – a coworker or friend.
  • Know when to change the topic (these are polarizing times, so don't feel the need to be
  • heard right now).
  • Take a break from social media if it triggers a need to argue.

Right now, we need to work on our self-awareness without self-judgement. We're all

exhausted and likely feeling some level of cynicism about things getting better – but it's still important that we try to keep our heads above water.

Work on that today by asking yourself: which personality traits aren't working for me and whichones could I leverage right now to fare just a tiny bit better?