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Basic Personality Changes Linked to Unemployment, Study Finds

Unemployment can change peoples' core personalities, making some less conscientious, agreeable and open, which may make it difficult for them to find new jobs, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

"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," says Christopher J. Boyce, PhD, of the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom. "This indicates that unemployment has wider psychological implications than previously thought."

Boyce and his colleagues examined a sample of 6,769 German adults (3,733 men and 3,036 women) who took a standard personality test at two points over four years, from 2006-2009. Of this group, 210 were unemployed for anywhere from one to four years during the experiment; another 251 of them were unemployed less than a year but then got jobs. The findings were published in APA's Journal of Applied Psychology.

The researchers looked at the so-called "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, in the long run, were 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 write, "but in later years when the situation becomes endemic, such incentives may weaken."

With respect to conscientiousness, the longer men spent without jobs, the larger their reduction in this trait, which is also tied to enjoying one's income, according to the researchers. In comparison, women became more conscientious in the early and late stages of unemployment but experienced a slump in the middle of the study period. The researchers theorized that women may have regained some conscientiousness by pursuing non-work-related activities traditionally associated with their gender, such as caregiving.

Unemployed men showed steady levels of openness in their first year of joblessness, but the levels decreased the longer they were unemployed. Women, in contrast, showed sharp reductions in openness in the second and third years of unemployment but rebounded in year four, according to the study.

The study suggests that the effect of unemployment across society is more than just an economic concern -- the unemployed may be unfairly stigmatized as a result of unavoidable personality change, potentially creating a downward cycle of difficulty in the labor market, Boyce said.

"Public policy therefore has a key role to play in preventing adverse personality change in society through both lower unemployment rates and offering greater support for the unemployed," Boyce said. "Policies to reduce unemployment are therefore vital not only to protect the economy but also to enable positive personality growth in individuals."

—Source: Boyce, C, Wood, A. (2015). Personality Change Following Unemployment. Journal of Applied Psychology.