Is COVID-19 Changing How People Score on Personality Assessments?



FlashBlogCOVID-19 continues to upend our daily lives. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people die daily, millions of jobs are lost weekly, and people continue to adjust to a new world. So much has changed within the past few months. It is fair to ask if people are changing too. We examined this question empirically using personality and values assessment data collected over the past 15 months.

What We Did

We used data from everyone who took the U.S. English versions of the Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI), Hogan Development Survey (HDS), and Motives, Values, Preferences Inventory (MVPI) between March 6, 2019, and May 5, 2020, to determine COVID-19’s effect on assessment scores. We focused specifically on the United States to limit the effect of the disease’s varying onset times across different countries. We used March 11, 2020, the day the World Health Organization (WHO) proclaimed COVID-19 a pandemic, to divide our samples into pre- and postpandemic cases. These groups allowed us to estimate a baseline and a pandemic effect.

We grouped people using 61 seven-day periods, with 53 baseline periods occurring before and eight pandemic periods occurring after the WHO proclamation. We had complete HPI data for 175,619 people, complete HDS data for 140,071 people, and complete MVPI data for 119,930 people. We present the mean HPI, HDS, and MVPI scale scores for each period below.

HPI Line GraphsHDS Line GraphsMVPI Line Graphs

Random variation from week to week makes interpreting these types of line graphs difficult, so we used linear regression models to determine (a) if mean scores changed when the WHO proclaimed COVID-19 a pandemic and (b) if scores continued to change as the pandemic continued. We note that we are running large number of analyses (28 scales x 2 analyses = 56 analyses), so we used a Bonferroni correction to limit the number of spurious results.

What We Found

We present results for the mean score changes in the figure below. We see slight increases in scores for MVPI Science and Altruism, which increased by .09 standard deviations from March 2019 to March 2020. Although these changes are statistically significant, a Cohen’s d value of .09 is widely considered a minimal effect. In absolute terms, MVPI Science increased by 2.63 percentile points and MVPI Altruism increased by 2.56 percentile points

Most scale scores did not change over the one-year period.Screen Shot 2020-05-21 at 2.48.36 PM

As to the question of whether scores continued to change over time, none of the results were statistically significant. This suggests that changes from one period to the next follow the same pattern before and after the pandemic proclamation.

What Does It Mean?

We do not see COVID-19 leading to consistent or pervasive changes in people’s personalities or values. We do see slightly higher mean scores on MVPI Science (wanting data and research to inform decisions) and on MVPI Altruism (wanting a society that helps people in need). Both values are relevant as countries around the world debate when and how to wind down shutdown and social distancing policies and how much aid to provide people affected by the disease and the resulting economic downturn. However, we note the score effects we see are quite minimal.

Why do we not see larger effects? COVID-19 is one of the worst pandemics in decades. The economic downturn it created has led to mass unemployment. If anything were to cause massive changes in how people act or believe, this should be it. We believe there are three reasons we don’t see larger changes:

  1. Personality and values are more stable than many people believe them to be. Research consistently suggests that personality and values are less prone to changing over time or across situations than other individual difference characteristics.
  2. Personality items function more as measures of self-presentation (i.e., how people want to be perceived) than self-report measures (i.e., what people do in a factual sense). This may help explain some of personality’s stability.
  3. We also note that COVID-19 may affect people in different ways in terms of their personality scores. However, to find the results we did, it means that the pandemic would have to be simultaneously making some people’s scores higher and other people’s scores lower across most of the 28 scales. This would cancel out any effect at the group level. This seems relatively unlikely, particularly for some scales (e.g., Security).