Introverts Had an Advantage During COVID-19, Study Finds

An introvert in a good mood

Introversion provided a buffer for dealing with a major life stressor, and even allowed people to come through it “better” than before.

In the spring 2020 semester at the University of Vermont, a group of researchers and doctors began a study on nearly 500 first-year college students to obtain data on wellness activities and mental health. Then COVID-19 hit and the campus went remote.

As you might have guessed, the study didn’t go as planned, but what came out of it were some surprising findings about how personality affects resilience and well-being. Every day, the students in the study used a phone app to rate their moods and stress levels, as well as any wellness activities they did (like exercise, mindfulness, and sleep). 

From pre-COVID-19 to COVID-19 days, the trend was an overall decrease in mood and wellness — meaning people’s state of mind got worse — as one might expect. More surprisingly, stress levels actually went down, too. The interesting part of the results is that introverts experienced a slight improvement in mood over the course of the semester while extroverts’ moods got worse. 

The team doing the study was led by Dr. David C. Rettew, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and an associate professor at The University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine. His most recent book is called Parenting Made Complicated: What Science Really Knows About the Greatest Debates of Early Childhood.

Overall, mental health has gotten worse for much of the U.S. population during COVID-19. In December, more than 42 percent of people the US Census Bureau surveyed reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, up 11 percent from the previous year.

But Dr. Rettew and his team found that the personality trait of introversion can (and did) bring surprising benefits for coping and resilience in a tough situation like the pandemic. Introversion provided a buffer for dealing with a major stressor, and even allowed people to come through it “better” than before.

Introverts like me might be thinking that this makes sense — we are thriving working and studying from home, and we have many positive and beneficial traits, even if people do not always realize it. But even if you’ve always known some of the special strengths we introverts have, now there’s even more scientific proof.

Introversion as a Part of Personality

So how did the scientists know who was an introvert for the study? They used the ”Big Five” inventory, which is a medically accepted questionnaire that assesses where a person falls on five spectrums and describes their personality. The five traits it looks at are:

  • neuroticism
  • extroversion 
  • openness
  • agreeableness
  • conscientiousness 

Then, if you test low on extroversion, that means you are an introvert.  

If you ask a doctor or scientist, they are likely to say that the Big Five is the best model for describing personality that we have, and some even use it for diagnosis. But others have argued that including goals, values, and plans — plus a person’s story — paints a more complete picture of someone’s personality. Most scientists also agree that while people can adapt to circumstances, our personalities don’t change massively over our lifetimes.

I asked Dr. Rettew about the Big Five, introversion and its advantages, and more. Low extroversion, or being an introvert, is not a problem in and of itself, even according to this model, but there can be a correlation between introversion and higher neuroticism. As someone who scores low for extroversion himself, Dr. Rettew told me, “[The correlation] isn’t as strong as some might expect, which suggests that many introverted people don’t feel particularly worried or sad and are comfortable with their introverted tendencies.” In this Psychology Today article, he wrote, “to some degree, we can modify our traits if we choose.”

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Introversion and the Pandemic

The average introverted college student in the study, who started the semester on campus and then went home to continue school remotely, was in a better mental “place” after some isolation. They’re not the only ones, as introverts in many stages of life — especially those of us privileged enough to be able to work or study from home — have liked aspects of our lives on lockdown. Many of us have felt motivated and creative in isolation, to the extent that many of us have “reentry fear” and dread about having to go back to a society of large gatherings and noisy environments.

Perhaps that is partly because many introverts sense what this study seems to show: that our well-being increases when the world is structured in a way that encourages independence, quiet, and healthy alone time. I’m sure many of us also feel for the extroverts out there — or really anyone who has felt lonely during the past year, as well — and want to make sure they are OK, too. I’m sure none of us are glad that COVID-19 happened, nor for all the fear and loss that it brought, but we introverts don’t mind some of the other changes that have happened as a result.

It was also the extroverts with low neuroticism who experienced the biggest declines in mood, making it seem that their difficulties were probably situational. The study abstract concludes with this: 

“These data support the conclusion that personality traits are related to mental health and can play a role in a person’s ability to cope with major stressful events. Different traits may also be more adaptive to different types of stressors.”

Even though we can think of reasons for the outcomes of the study, it doesn’t prove what, specifically, caused introverts to show resilience and improvements in mood during COVID-19 — just that there was a link of some kind between them. When asked, Dr. Rettew said he was not entirely sure why introverts seemed to fare better, but he drew from his experience with his practice. “One thing I have heard from some of my more introverted patients that might explain some of this is that, with COVID-19, they didn’t feel as bad or guilty about not engaging as much with the world, because they weren’t allowed to, and nobody else was either,” he said. 

I can relate to that! We introverts have not had as much pressure to socialize, meet in person for work or school, be in loud environments, or fill our calendars with plans over the past year. Our preferences were normalized instead of being treated more like the exception.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I asked Dr. Rettew if an introvert’s mood is likely to benefit from working or studying from home in the long-term. “Yes, many, indeed, report feeling more relaxed and attentive by working from home.” He did note, though, that some people say it also makes it harder when they do need to interact with people, because they’re no longer used to it.

Dr. Rettew also pointed out that while college can be exciting, many students also find it stressful, so when that stress was dulled somewhat by going remote, they fared better. In that way, he believes the fact that the sample population was made up of college students might have had a role in the study results.

While nobody knows exactly what the future holds, most people agree that we won’t go “back to normal.” For office jobs, many people probably will not be asked to work in the office as much as before, if at all. When we get something delivered, we will likely still be able to choose the “leave it at my door” option and not have to talk to a person we don’t know. Solo outings, too, could be even more popular and typical. This is all great news for us introverts, as it makes us feel more comfortable and like the world is becoming more introverted.

However, introverts’ concerns about post-pandemic life are legitimate. Studies like Dr. Rettew’s, and the experiences of the introvert community, tell us that our way of being should be encouraged as much as extroversion. There are times and situations — like our current global pandemic — when we introverts uniquely grow and thrive. When asked about introversion in relation to working and studying from home in the near future, Dr. Rettew said, “the expected hybrid options that might become more common post-COVID-19 offer some advantages to introverts and will be seen as a welcome change.”

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