The popular view is that personality is largely unchanging. To some extent that’s true. If you take a scientifically validated personality test one year and then again a couple of years later, the results are likely to be very similar.
But there are exceptions. Over the course of our lifetimes our personalities often change dramatically, studies show. Conscious effort and big life shifts can also shape our character. And according to preliminary but intriguing new psychological research highlighted on by BBC Future that includes the huge life event we are currency all living through – the pandemic.
The pandemic and ‘The Michelangelo Effect’
Before I delve into the details, it’s worth addressing why you should care if you’re not a personality researcher. Your may study personality, but as an entrepreneur living through the last roller coaster months chances are good you’ve noticed some changes to your mood and behavior. Maybe you’re anxious, tired, or feeling withdrawn. Maybe you’re looking at your business or career with new eyes.
Are these changes here to stay? Should you worry? Science is beginning to suggest some answers to these questions, and they just might help you meet your own emotional ups and downs with a little more equanimity.
Everyone’s lockdown experience was different, which means its effect on personality will vary person to person. Being stuck at home unemployed and worrying how you’ll support your family is very different from doing your job remotely while quarantining with a loving partner.
But “while we may not have developed a collective ‘lockdown personality,'” writes the BBC’s Christian Jarrett, “we might have been changed idiosyncratically, dependent on our specific circumstances.” For those lucky enough to avoid a traumatic lockdown experience, evidence suggests the disruption might actually bring about positive changes.
“The lockdown might have turbo-charged a phenomenon known as ‘The Michelangelo Effect,’ which refers to the way we are more likely to develop into the kind of person we want to be if we’re with a close romantic partner who supports and encourages us to behave in line with our aspirations – akin to a sculptor helping to reveal our ideal self,” writes Jarrett.
Like an encouraging partner, the enforced slowness and proximity to mortality of the lockdown may have acted as a sculptor, forcing us to look closely at our lives and chip away at all the ways reality fails to line up with our values and aspirations.
“This time of reflection might lead to increases in ‘self-concept clarity’ – the degree to which people have coherent beliefs about themselves and their goals in life,” University of California, Davis psychologist Wiebke Bleidorn tells Jarrett. In short, for those who avoided the worst of the lockdown, the pandemic served as a kick in the pants to make sure our lives haven’t strayed too far from our ideals and aspirations.
Another reason not to rush back to normal
It’s not just psychologists who are seeing signs this might be true. When Sigal Samuel asked Vox readers to weigh in on how the pandemic had changed them back in June, many responded that the experience had caused them to reflect on and reset their lives.
“Workers whose jobs defined their lives are now asking what all that productivity was for, and whether we really want to measure our self-worth by the yardstick of hypercompetitive capitalism. Many are finding that the things that made them look ‘successful’ actually also made them feel miserable, or precarious, or physically unwell,” she writes in the much shared article.
So if you’re feeling not quite yourself the last few months, or if your old life doesn’t look as appealing as it once did, know you’re not alone. Lots of us are being reshaped by the pandemic. For those fortunate to have had the physical and mental space for reflection, our everyday selves may even end up better aligned with our ideal selves after this is over.
Or as Jarrett concludes, summing up the scientific consensus thus far, “don’t rush back to old ways.” This crisis might just be changing your personality for the better.