Analysis: research has found that introverts experienced increased anxiety at the onset of the pandemic, but extroverts quickly caught up

By Jon Gruda and Adegboyega Ojo, Maynooth University

For many years to come, we all will remember March 2020, the moment the world as we knew it effectively shut down and physical distancing restrictions were put in place across the globe. In Ireland, most individuals were told to work from home and socially distance themselves from co-workers, friends and even family members. Yet there was some comfort in knowing that we all were experiencing similar emotions of anxiety and a lack of social connection with others. Headlines such as "we are all in this together" flooded social and mainstream media.

But was this actually the case? Early on in the crisis, some suggested that this is perhaps a particularly difficult time for extroverts, given the imposed socialisation restrictions. Indeed, extraversion may play a key role in understanding individuals' adjustment to the pandemic.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Claire Byrne, Dr Harry Barry and Dr Anne Marie Creaven from the University of Limerick on pandemic challenges for introverts and extroverts

After all, extroverts are more likely to actively seek out social activities and interactions with others and tend to be more stimulated by their social environment. Because the pandemic is unique in that it is a "socially distancing" crisis, it also resulted in a large decrease in social face-to-face connections to others, behaviour that is likely to impact extraverts. Put differently, if extroverts were suffering more than introverts because of the decrease in face-to-face interactions, wouldn't that also mean that introverts were somewhat more protected against increased anxiety?

To be able to answer this question, we collected 2.26 million tweets by 1,336 residents of New York City – the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic early on in 2020 – from October 30th 2019 to July 2nd 2020. These tweets were annotated by an in-house developed anxiety detection algorithm, and an algorithm to infer personality traits, such as extraversion.

Both algorithms are based on linguistic-text analytics. Mainly, whenever we communicate with others, especially online, we leave small traces of our personality, mood and emotions behind. For example, when someone writes to you "I'm so tired of all this, I just want to go back to normal", researchers can look back at such texts and make certain guesses about that person’s feelings at that moment. Over time, a collection of such clues can be used to make inferences about individuals’ personality traits, emotions, and moods. This type of analysis has been shown to work extremely well in predicting emotions such as anxiety and personality traits.

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Ó RTÉ Radio 1's Beo Ar Éigean, tá na BAÉs ag caint ar a gcuid pearsantachtaí féin agus ar na difear idir extroverts agus introverts

Using this approach, we find that both extroverts and introverts experienced increased anxiety during the Covid-19 pandemic than before it. This is not very surprising, an onset of a crisis is usually followed by increased anxiety levels due to uncertainty about the future. Interestingly, however, it does seem that extroverts experienced a much greater jump in anxiety compared to before the crisis.

So does that mean that the pandemic was really more difficult for extraverts? Well, yes and no! Whenever we want to understand a dynamic situation such as a crisis, we must take into account how the situation develops and changes over time. When we do so, we find that even though introverts also experienced increased anxiety with the onset of the pandemic, extraverts' anxiety quickly caught up with introverts’ anxiety levels as the crisis continued. Indeed, after about 50 days after the beginning of the crisis, we find no more differences between extroverts’ and introverts’ anxiety.

There’s no doubt that the pandemic has affected all of us. Yet it’s important to consider how a crisis can impact individuals differently based on their personality, and that individuals’ emotions change as the situation changes. Don’t just regularly check on your extroverted friends throughout this difficult time, but check in on your introverted friends as well.

Dr Jon Gruda is an Assistant Professor in Organisational Behaviour at the School of Business at Maynooth University. Dr Adegboyega Ojo is Associate Professor of Management and Government Information Systems at the School of Business at Maynooth University.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ