Unemployment can change people’s core personalities, making some less conscientious, agreeable and open, which can make it difficult for them to find new jobs.
This startling new research, published by the American Psychological Association in the Journal of Applied Psychology, examines a sample of 6,769 German adults who took a standard personality test at two points over four years. Some 210 members of the sample group were unemployed from one to four years, and another 251 participants were unemployed for less than a year and then found jobs.
“The results challenge the idea that our personalities are ‘fixed,’ and show that the effects of external factors such as unemployment can have large impacts on our basic personality,” said Christopher J. Boyce, Ph.D., of the University of Stirling in the UK. “This indicates that unemployment has wider psychological implications than previously thought.”
Boyce and his fellow researchers looked at the “big five” personality traits – conscientiousness, neuroticism, agreeableness, extraversion and openness. They found that men experienced increased agreeableness during the first two years of unemployment, compared to men who never lost their jobs. But after two years, the agreeableness levels of the unemployed men began to diminish and ultimately became lower than those of the men with jobs. For women, agreeableness declined with each year of unemployment.
In early unemployment stages, there may be incentives for individuals to behave agreeably in an effort to secure another job or placate those around them,” the researchers wrote. “But in later years, when the situation becomes endemic, such incentives may weaken.”
The longer men spent unemployed, the less conscientious they became, said researchers, who also tied it to enjoying one’s income. By comparison, women became more conscientious in the early and late stages of unemployment. The researchers theorized that women maybe have regained some conscientiousness by pursuing non-work-related activities traditionally associated with their gender, like caregiving.
Unemployed men showed steady levels of openness in their first year of joblessness, but the levels decreased the longer they were unemployed. Women showed sharp decreases in openness in the second and third years of unemployment, but rebound in year four.
Researchers said the study results suggest that the effect of unemployment across society is more than just an economic concern. The unemployed might experience personality changes that can create a downward cycle of that could prevent them from re-entering the job market.
Boyce suggests public policy has a key role to play, noting, “Policies to reduce unemployment are vital not only to protect the economy but also to enable positive personality growth in individuals.