You’ve Changed…Or Is It Just Me?

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By: Dr. James McFarland, People Scientist, and Jake McKenzie, Chief Executive Officer

A recent study published by the Public Library of Science (PLOS One) is probing the question of personality. Specifically, did the COVID-19 crisis alter our unique predispositions toward thinking, feeling, and behaving in certain ways? And if this is true, how permanent are these changes? The answer is complicated. Our personal collection of traits, tendencies, and quirks tend to be relatively stable, particularly for those of us over the age of thirty. However, Sutin et al.’s study suggests that the events from the last two and a half years have significantly disrupted these enduring characteristics and may have effectively changed our personalities for the foreseeable future.

One of the more common measures of human personality is known as the Five-Factor Model, or simply the “Big Five.” This is in reference to five distinct behavioral tendencies that psychologists have been studying for decades: openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness, extroversion, and neuroticism. Using a “trait theory” approach to personality, the Five-Factor Model posits that we all have varying amounts of each trait. Each based on a continuum, these traits reflect our predispositions to behave or act in certain ways. While it’s possible to have high scores in all five traits, generally one or two of the traits are more pronounced while the rest are staggered below. These unique constellations of traits tend to result in subpopulations that systematically respond to stimuli in slightly different ways.

For example, past research suggests that individuals who are relatively high in the traits of openness and extroversion tend to be highly oriented towards the perceived hedonic value embodied by an ad or a specific product. When this focus is rewarded, these consumers tend to experience feelings of greater affiliation with the brand and are more likely to remain loyal to that brand and its products in the future. A more recent study published in the journal Sustainability has found that the appeal generated by the use of “underdog” messaging (i.e., showing passion and determination in the face of unlikely odds) is largely a product of the Big Five trait of agreeableness. While the admirable qualities of effort and tenacity contained in such messaging were readily acknowledged by all of the participants in the study, the participants who scored especially high in the trait of agreeableness were significantly more likely to respond positively to these types of messages and were more likely to express a preference for the associated brand. While more research is needed in the area of personality and consumer research, there are some indicators that personality can play a significant role in consumer behavior.

This brings us back to the question posed at the beginning: are people’s long-term personalities undergoing a drastic shift? According to Sutin et al.’s findings, the overall level of neuroticism in the US experienced a slight decline during the year 2020, only to rebound to pre-2020 levels at the beginning of 2021. This reduction in neuroticism is theoretically consistent with past research showing an increase in prosocial behavior (i.e., other-focused) during times of collective crisis. However, and perhaps more significantly, Sutin et al.’s research shows that since 2021 the US population has experienced a relatively rapid decline in the traits of openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and extroversion. These declines from pre-2020 levels are especially pronounced in the younger generation (under 30), and it is unclear whether these changes in our personality traits are transitory or here to stay.

While this research is still in its early stages, the important thing to remember is that human behavior is a dynamic process, especially when it is subjected to extended periods of prolonged crises. Marketing techniques that worked well a few years ago may not have the same impact today. Given the relatively drastic changes in personality over the last two years, it may be time to reevaluate your assumptions about your target audience if you haven’t updated them since the pandemic. To better understand consumer psychology and to find out more about effectively focusing your messaging, give us a call at 833-579-1905 or email us at [email protected].