COVID-19 and mental health of individuals with different personalities – pnas.org

Significance

Analyzing how personality affects mental health deterioration during the COVID-19 pandemic is important because it can lead to more personalized psychological or psychiatric treatments. Drawing on a longitudinal dataset representative of the UK population before and during the pandemic, we document that personality can be an important factor. In particular, agreeableness is a negative predictor, while openness and, to a lower extent, extraversion are positive predictors; the effect of neuroticism is surprisingly weak. In female respondents, cognitive skills and openness, and in non-British White respondents, extraversion and openness are particularly strong predictors of mental health deterioration. The fact that neuroticism has an effect that is weaker than expected represents an interesting puzzle.

Abstract

Several studies have been devoted to establishing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health across gender, age, and ethnicity. However, much less attention has been paid to the differential effect of COVID-19 according to different personalities. We do this using the UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS), a large-scale panel survey representative of the UK population. The UKHLS allows us to assess the mental health of the same respondent before and during the COVID-19 period based on their “Big Five” personality traits and cognitive skills. We find that during the COVID-19 period, individuals who have more extravert and open personality traits report a higher mental health deterioration, while those scoring higher in agreeableness are less affected. The effect of openness is particularly strong: One more SD predicts up to 0.23 more symptoms of mental health deterioration in the 12-item General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12) test during the COVID-19 period. In particular, for females, cognitive skills and openness are strong predictors of mental health deterioration, while for non-British White respondents, these predictors are extraversion and openness. Neuroticism strongly predicts worse mental health cross-sectionally, but it does not lead to significantly stronger deterioration during the pandemic. The study’s results are robust to the inclusion of potential confounding variables such as changes in physical health, household income, and job status (like unemployed or furloughed).

  • Accepted August 1, 2021.

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