How COVID-19 Will Reshape People's Personalities
By Vivian Zayas
The effects of the coronavirus pandemic will be "imprinted on the personality of our nation for a very long time," predicted Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
No doubt in the future people will mourn those who've died and remember the challenges of this period. But how would COVID-19 shape people's personalities – and into what?
I am a psychology researcher interested in how people's minds shape, and are shaped by, their life circumstances. Human beings are born into this world ready to deal with basic problems – forming close relationships, maintaining status in groups, finding mates and avoiding disease. People are adaptable, though, and react to the circumstances they find themselves in.
Psychological research suggests that concerns about COVID-19 and social distancing are likely to affect how much people want to socialize with others, what they desire in partners and relationships, and their preferences for more conventional thinking over openness to new experiences.
Psychological Traits to Keep You Safe
Infectious diseases have always posed a threat.
As a result, human beings have evolved a physiological immune system designed to detect and defend against pathogens. This is the realm of antibodies, white blood cells and fevers.
But combating disease requires a lot of physiological effort. This can be a costly trade-off for a body, leaving fewer resources for other life demands, including growth and reproduction.
These physiological defenses are also a reactive strategy with risks. At worst, the immune system can fail, leading to disability or even death. But it can also weaken and become ineffective or even paradoxically work against you, leading to autoimmune disorders.
To deal with pathogen threats in a proactive and less costly way, human beings also have evolved psychological mechanisms to detect and defend against the threat of infectious disease prior to infection. This system is vigilant to cues that signal the possibility of infection. When activated, it triggers strong cognitive, emotional and behavioral reactions to help you avoid pathogens – and the people and situations that may harbor them. Reactions such as the disgust you'd feel upon the sight of a decaying carcass, for example, reflect these evolved systems that motivate you to steer clear of germs.
Although spending time with others is generally beneficial to mental and physical health, when there's a risk of infectious disease, it might have a downside. Interacting with others increases exposure to deadly pathogens and could decrease survival. This, after all, is the impetus for social distancing practices.
Like the physiological immune system, the psychological behavioral immune system is flexible – when you perceive some infection risk, it triggers responses to minimize the danger. One such response is withdrawing from other people and becoming less social.
An outbreak also affects how people date and mate. Of all social activities, sexual acts are obviously the most physically intimate, making one most vulnerable to exposure to transmitted diseases (nonsexual as well as sexual). An outbreak also signals a world that is dangerous and more uncertain, potentially coloring your views of suitable partners.
Avoiding Disease Motivates Changes
Psychological studies have found that people who perceive themselves as vulnerable to infection are more likely to report being less extroverted, less open to new experiences and having more restricted sociosexual attitudes. They are also more likely to have fewer partners, reflecting a preference for long-term relationships over casual hookups.
But even momentary exposure to information about infectious disease can shape personality, preferences and behavior.
In experiments, psychologists randomly assigned participants to view a slide show featuring information about germs and transmission of contagious disease or, as an innocuous comparison, a presentation about architecture.
Then, ostensibly as part of another, unrelated study, participants completed a personality test. Those who had been exposed to information about pathogens reported being less extroverted. People who perceived themselves as vulnerable to the disease also became less open to experiences and less agreeable after viewing the pathogen information.
In another study, participants who viewed pathogen information, especially those who perceived themselves as vulnerable, showed evidence of automatically avoiding unknown others. When assessing their reflexive, unconscious responses, the researchers found that heightened concerns about pathogens led participants to evaluate strangers more negatively and have heightened tendencies to avoid them.
Other research has shown that exposure to pathogen information shapes preferences for opposite-sex partners. Both men and women showed greater attraction to pictures of people with facial symmetry – a cue of good health and a strong immune system. Psychologists have linked concerns about pathogen infection with a preference for long-term committed relationships over casual flings – an inclination that becomes more pronounced after viewing pathogen information.
These findings are not limited to experimental settings. Scientists have collected some evidence that these in-the-moment responses seem to settle into longer-lasting personality traits.
For example, psychology researchers have investigated the relationship between regions with many endemic infectious diseases and personality traits. Those living in a region with a historically high prevalence of infectious disease showed lower levels of extroversion and were less open to new experiences. In these areas, people also were more restricted in their sociosexual style; they preferred fewer partners and fewer sexual encounters and generally reported being more cautious and inhibited in their sexual interactions.
Other research also converges on how basic preferences about suitable partners reflect changes in the prevalence of infectious disease. Psychologists found that across 29 cultures, parasite prevalence predicted the degree to which individuals prioritized physical attractiveness in mate choice, an observable cue signaling that potential partners are pathogen-free and have strong immune systems that can be passed down to offspring.
Findings like these support the idea that personality – the ways in which you interact with others and the world – is shaped by how your behavioral immune system manages the risk of infectious diseases.
Cultural norms and practices provide guidelines for how to behave to prevent the spread of disease. Whereas prior to COVID-19 a person sneezing in public might receive a polite "gesundheit," now it elicits fear. Break the "six feet" rule and you risk an angry exchange, or worse.
The risk of coronavirus is highlighting people's ability and willingness to follow guidelines for the sake of the community, promoting individuals' collectivistic side. At the same time, the trade-off is less curiosity, experimentation and willingness to deviate from the status quo – all behaviors that in the face of COVID-19 can increase exposure to pathogens and decrease survival.
The U.S. is only a couple months into social distancing. But COVID-19 is already shaping behavior. People are less social. Dating patterns are disrupted. Effects are emerging even in people's closest, most established relationships.
Overall the psychological literature supports Fauci's conclusion that COVID-19 will have enduring effects on the basic ways in which Americans interact with others and the world. Living during a period with a high risk of infection is likely to shape how people view themselves in relation to their community, their feelings and behaviors about dating and sex, their preferences toward conventional thinking and behaviors and their risk-taking in general.
The longer the coronavirus threat lingers, the more these changes may reflect not just changes in momentary behaviors, but changes to more enduring aspects of people's personalities.
Vivian Zayas is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Cornell University.
Disclosure statement: Vivian Zayas receives funding from National Science Foundation.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
New fossils uncovered in Argentina may belong to one of the largest animals to have walked on Earth.
- Groundbreaking Fossil Shows Prehistoric 15-Foot Reptile Tried to ... ›
- Skull of Smallest Known Dinosaur Found in 99-Million-Year Old Amber ›
- Giant 'Toothed' Birds Flew Over Antarctica 40 Million Years Ago ... ›
- World's Second-Largest Egg Found in Antarctica Probably Hatched ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
- Pruitt Guts the Clean Power Plan: How Weak Will the New EPA ... ›
- It's Official: Trump Administration to Repeal Clean Power Plan ... ›
- 'Deadly' Clean Power Plan Replacement ›
By Jonathan Runstadler and Kaitlin Sawatzki
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers have found coronavirus infections in pet cats and dogs and in multiple zoo animals, including big cats and gorillas. These infections have even happened when staff were using personal protective equipment.
- Gorillas in San Diego Test Positive for Coronavirus - EcoWatch ›
- Wildlife Rehabilitators Are Overwhelmed During the Pandemic. In ... ›
- Coronavirus Pandemic Linked to Destruction of Wildlife and World's ... ›
- Utah Mink Becomes First Wild Animal to Test Positive for Coronavirus ›
By Peter Giger
The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
By John R. Platt
The period of the 45th presidency will go down as dark days for the United States — not just for the violent insurgency and impeachment that capped off Donald Trump's four years in office, but for every regressive action that came before.
- Biden Announces $2 Trillion Climate and Green Recovery Plan ... ›
- How Biden and Kerry Can Rebuild America's Climate Leadership ... ›
- Biden's EPA Pick Michael Regan Urged to Address Environmental ... ›
- How Joe Biden's Climate Plan Compares to the Green New Deal ... ›