What is behind the psychology of unemployment? As evidenced by personality psychology literature, individuals vary in their patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. It is theorized that personality develops during the first 30 years of life, and then stabilizes during later adulthood. However, there is debate among personality psychologists on whether certain life events—like unemployment—can alter one’s personality later in life.
Research supports the negative psychological effects of unemployment, showing decreases in well-being comparable to losing a significant other or becoming disabled. In a recent study, the current authors (Boyce, Wood, Daly, & Sedikides, 2015) filled a research gap on whether unemployment can also alter personality. The authors examined whether 1) unemployment leads to changes in personality, 2) how the length of unemployment and the gender of the unemployed person influences the changes in personality, and 3) whether the changes in personality remain after the unemployed person finds a job. The researchers used personality data from a longitudinal study of German individuals, with 461 of them becoming unemployed during the four year research period. Half of these individuals became reemployed during the study.
UNEMPLOYMENT AND THE BIG FIVE PERSONALITY TRAITS
The “Big Five” is a way of characterizing personality traits into five broad dimensions: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, and openness to experience. Extraversion is characterized by sociability, talkativeness, and a need to affiliate with others. Extraverts tend to enjoy social interactions and become energized by being near other people. The authors found that, compared to individuals who remained employed, individuals who experienced unemployment during the four years of the study had a slight drop of extraverted tendencies. There were no differences by gender or length of unemployment. The level of neuroticism, which is characterized by the tendency to experience negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, or depression, remained similar between both employed and unemployed groups.
Agreeableness is exemplified with kindness, sympathy, cooperativeness, consideration, and warmth. The authors found that agreeableness changed as a result of time spent unemployed as well as gender. Interestingly, unemployed men experienced an increase in agreeableness over the first two years of unemployment, but their agreeableness gradually decreased after two years without a job. On the other hand, agreeableness in women lessened the longer they spent unemployed. The authors hypothesized that this was due to traditional workplace gender roles, where women are expected to be more amenable and courteous, so that once out of a job they become less agreeable.
Conscientiousness is characterized by organization, self-discipline, goal focus, and planned behavior. The study found that the longer an individual is unemployed, the greater the reduction in conscientiousness. These changes in conscientiousness differed by gender, with men’s conscientiousness decreasing with each year of unemployment and women’s conscientiousness increasing in the early stages of unemployment and then declining in the later stages. The authors hypothesized that the work environment provides ample opportunity for an individual to express conscientious-related traits, so the experience of unemployment results in a reduced tendency to be achievement oriented, highly motivated, and efficient.
Openness to experience is a personality trait that is associated with creativity, a willingness to experience new and varied things, a sense of curiosity, enjoyment of adventure, imagination, and appreciation for beauty. The authors found a general decline in openness, the degree of which varied by gender and time spent unemployed. Men’s openness remained stable during the first two years of unemployment and then decreased after a few years without work. Women’s openness declined quite drastically in the second and third years of unemployment and then increased in the fourth year. The authors hypothesized that unemployment could curtail the ability to experience varied and novel experiences and cause individuals to reconsider the world as unpleasant and less beautiful.
UNEMPLOYMENT CAN TEMPORARILY CHANGE PERSONALITY
Compared to their employed counterparts, individuals who experienced unemployment during the four years of the study reported decreased levels of conscientiousness, agreeableness, openness to experience, and extraversion. While some of these personality changes could be explained by typical personality developments over a lifespan, there were considerable changes in conscientiousness for unemployed men and agreeableness for unemployed women. Furthermore, the amount of time spent unemployed did appear to alter the level of agreeableness and openness to experience.
Lastly, the authors did not find any personality differences between employed individuals and those that were unemployed and then became reemployed. Therefore, the changes in personality due to unemployment can be reversed once people have found a new job. This supports the contextual perspective that says environmental factors and life events can temporarily influence an individual’s perceived personality traits.