OP-ED: The personality traits that make lockdown coping easier

Andreas Kluth
Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)
A pedestrian wearing a face mask or covering due to the COVID-19 pandemic, walks past a sign reading "Keep the people we love safe" in York, north west England on January 6, 2021, on the second day of Britain's national lockdown to combat the spread of COVID-19. (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

In March 2020, still early in the pandemic, I opined that for introverts quarantine can be a liberation. I was extrapolating from personal experience and historical examples. And many other pundits had a similar hunch. But we were speculating before we had empirical data. Now that such information is available, what does it say?

By and large, the research shows that I was wrong. But I couldn’t be happier because what the evidence actually says is that the truth, as usual, is more complex, more subtle and more interesting.

The studies published since the outbreak agree that personality plays a huge role in how we do or don’t cope with difficult situations such as lockdowns. Obviously there are other factors as well, from age (the young suffer much more from depression and anxiety) to employment (no job, no cheer) and, well, infection. But personality determines how we greet our lot in life. And it’s the combination of several traits that shapes resilience.

Scholars break down those traits into five main bundles. One is the aforementioned degree of extroversion — how stimulating (or draining) we find social interactions. Another is openness — how curious, inquisitive, adventurous and creative we are, for example. A third is agreeableness — how helpful, optimistic and kind we are. The fourth is conscientiousness — how organized, focused, prepared and disciplined we are. The fifth is neuroticism — the extent to which we get moody, nervous, worried or unstable.

As far as introversion goes, the evidence certainly surprised me. One study of college students at the University of Vermont did find that introverts in lockdown reported improvements over time in their mood, whereas the extroverts said their mood got worse. But the extroverts were still in a better mood overall, thanks to their more cheerful default position.

Another study, of people from various ages and backgrounds, found that introversion was clearly associated with more loneliness, anxiety and depression during lockdown. I wonder whether that’s in part because many introverts can’t actually withdraw into solitude when they’re stuck with suite mates or family members. As one introvert joked on Twitter, “This quarantine is not our dream come true. We have people in our house who NEVER leave.”

But as a study published in January suggests, other traits appear to be more important than extroversion. In particular — and rather unsurprisingly — neuroticism was strongly correlated with more anxiety and worse depression. People who are worrywarts even in normal times are also at heightened risk of freaking out when a deadly virus is making the rounds.

Openness was also associated with increased anxiety, though not with depression. That surprised me. This trait includes abstract, creative and lateral thinking. That’s why, in last year’s column, I used Isaac Newton, an introvert who also had an unusually open mind, as an example of somebody who had stunning intellectual breakthroughs in quarantine. By the same token, perhaps, very open minds are also better at imagining all the things that could go wrong.

Being agreeable helped against both anxiety and depression, but not as much as you might think. It’s possible — I’m speculating — that agreeability mainly turbo-boosts the positive effects of that aforementioned other trait, extroversion. After all, it’s no good being a social butterfly, on Zoom or in your dormitory, if you’re not also empathetic and kind. It’s the quality, not the quantity, of human connections that comforts us in bad times.

The winner on the positive side of the ledger was clear. The more conscientious people were, the less anxious and depressed when stuck at home. This makes sense. People that score highly on this trait are better at hewing to routines that provide structure during endless days of working or studying remotely. I have a friend who never wore coat and tie in the office, but started dressing up in fancy, and rather eccentric, suits during lockdown. Looking sharp, he ascends every day to his attic to do productive and satisfying work.

Conscientiousness, or what we used to call self-discipline, also helps in every other way. It gets us on the yoga mat day after boring day, corks the wine bottle after the fourth second glass, and helps us meet our deadlines on the job, so we can keep it.

What I find uplifting about this research is that there are many individual paths toward resilience. For each trait, we’re all somewhere on a spectrum. With self-awareness, we can compensate for risk factors — neuroticism, say — and we’ll be fine. Moreover, we still have recourse to some secret weapons the psychologists forgot to include in their categories. Even (or especially) in a macabre situation like a pandemic, humor is an option.

— Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He's the author of "Hannibal and Me."