Mental health during the pandemic has predominantly been viewed through the lens of gender, ethnicity, class, and geographic location. However, a study published by the University of Glasgow Adam Smith Business School has examined the role of personality traits on individual reactions to the lockdown restrictions.

The study accessed data on the mental health of more than 5,000 people, taken from the UK Household Longitudinal Study from early last year to January 2021.

Based on the responses to the 12-question General Health Questionnaire, the data analysis looked at individual classification on the ‘Big Five’ personality traits: Neuroticism (Emotional Stability), Extraversion, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Openness.

Consequences of lockdown through the lens of the individual

The study found that individuals, and especially women, defined as ‘open’ and ‘extroverted’ were highly at-risk of mental health decline during the last year.

Researchers reflected that ‘openness’ – indicating adventurousness – is a trait that is highly associated with high intelligence and creativity. The decline in wellbeing for those people judged to be open was put down to pandemic restrictions that limited individual capacity for new experiences and sensations.

Extraversion, a trait related to sociability, was also unsurprisingly associated with a decline in mental wellbeing due to restrictions. Although surprisingly, the researchers noted that this seemed to be true only for the early stages of the pandemic – they speculated that this might result from extraverted responders managing to adapt to the restrictions through perhaps using social media to engage with others.

On the other hand, individuals whose personalities were characterised by social stability and altruism or ‘agreeableness’ suffered less than the more outgoing due to their better adaptability to the constrained environment of lockdown.

Again, surprisingly, people deemed to be highly sensitive to negative emotions like anger, depression, or hostility, termed as ‘neuroticism’, were weakly associated with a decline in mental health. The researcher suggested this might indicate that responders with a highly ‘neurotic’ personality did not experience a deterioration more than pre-pandemic levels but experienced a stable continuation of their negatively felt emotions.

The authors of the study concluded that understanding how individuals with different personalities react to extreme conditions such as lockdown can give policymakers more information on identifying at-risk groups and for more targeted future psychological support and treatment.

Dr Anwen Zhang, co-author of the research, University of Glasgow, commented: “Our research highlights that mental health is a prominent and complex issue that requires policy priority. It is necessary to understand that people respond to circumstances and policies in different ways, and policy must reflect this when it comes to addressing differential needs of the population.”