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Unemployment changes ones personality!

willem293_270x270By Dr. W.A. Arrindell, psychologist

A new study published in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Applied Psychology demonstrates that unemployment can change individuals' core personalities, which may make it difficult for them to find new jobs.

Introduction

The well-known psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud once pointed out that work represents our strongest tie to reality. Being employed not only helps in earning a living (the manifest or primary benefit of being employed), but it also has so-called latent or secondary benefits that serve to maintain links with reality.

Much psychological research has focused on the potential damage to mental health caused by unemployment by addressing what has been called the "selection versus exposure" issue. The observed association between being employed and well-being (employed individuals are less depressed and show higher self-esteem than their unemployed equivalents) can be attributed either to employment status and job satisfaction (exposure hypothesis) or to the alternative possibility that because of a pre-existing difference in mental health, those who are mentally healthy have a greater chance of obtaining and retaining a job than those who are mentally less healthy (selection hypothesis). The evidence shows, in support of the selection hypothesis, that when jobs are plentiful, unemployed individuals tend to be generally unemployable or else "work-shy" (unwilling to work); whereas, when jobs are scarce, there is good evidence in support of the exposure hypothesis (working leads to life satisfaction and well-being).

States versus traits

Long before the advent of scientific psychology, a distinction was made by the (45 B.C) between two person characteristics: temporary states, including emotions and psychological symptoms (complaints), and stable personality traits. Several studies conducted in the 1980s had already demonstrated that being unemployed is associated with such negative states as depression and general unwell-being (malaise). Inspired by a new conceptualization of personality, not as a characteristic that remains completely stable over time, but "regarded as a snapshot of a fluid process of individuals engaging dynamically with their environments, expressing behaviours to varying degrees, but being differentiated by how they typically feel, think, and behave – the 'stable part of themselves'" (2015, p. 2), Dr. Christopher J. Boyce, Dr. Alex M. Wood and associates from the University of Stirling, University of Manchester, and University of Southampton (all three located in the UK) argued that the experience of unemployment is likely to bring considerable and unexpected fluctuation to an individual's life and, potentially, to compromise the development of particular personality traits.

Novel study

Dr. Boyce and associates examined for the first time personality change of the unemployed relative to the employed ( HYPERLINK "http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0038647" http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0038647 ). In doing so, they focused on measuring the Big Five personality traits. These are five broad domains or dimensions of personality that are used to describe human personality. These dimensions are based on the widely-accepted five-factor model of personality. The dimensions are Openness to Experience (inventive/curious), Conscientiousness (efficient/organized), Extraversion (outgoing/energetic), Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate), and Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous). Box 2 gives the facets that are captured with each dimension and a few sample items.

Box 2 about here

Predictions

Conscientiousness

This dimension reflects the tendency for individuals to be focused on a goal and to be highly motivated and, therefore, bears links with achievement within a work environment. Accordingly, the experience of unemployment may curtail opportunities to express conscientious-like behaviour. Previous studies have provided three sources pointing to the critical role of conscientiousness in the workplace. First, high levels of conscientiousness are linked to a prosperous economic situation (wealth) and higher wages, and predict fluctuations in life satisfaction following income changes. Hence, unemployment may cut off one's access to previously valued achievement goals, and this may act as a catalyst for personality change. Second, both retirement and first-time entry into employment have been shown to be associated with changes in conscientiousness (a decrease in relation to retirement and an increase in relation to employment entry). Third, being in paid work has been linked with changes in conscientiousness-related traits, such as increased social responsibility. These observations inspired Boyce et al. to hypothesize that "the experience of unemployment (relative to employment) will produce ...reductions in conscientiousness."

Neuroticism

As previous studies have demonstrated that unemployment is associated with high levels of stress and depression, and both are associated with trait-neuroticism, Boyce et al. concluded that it is likely that unemployment will prompt higher neuroticism. In addition, as the work environment provides a vital source of social support, which may vanish following unemployment and result in loneliness and lowered self-esteem, all of which may, in turn, foster negative emotions, negative thinking, and negative behaviours, Boyce et al. hypothesized that the experience of unemployment (relative to employment) will produce ... increases in neuroticism."

Agree-, Extra- & Open-

Boyce et al. pointed out that given that unemployment presents both new threats and new opportunities, it is not entirely clear how unemployment might influence traits like agreeableness, extraversion, and openness to experience. They argued that changes in one's work situation could lead to either increases or reductions in the relevant trait levels.

For example, openness may increase, as unemployment offers people the opportunity to evaluate their lives and re-focus on less material matters, like deepening of relationships, and appreciation of aesthetics. At the same time, the authors pointed out, unemployment could constrain the individual's ability for novel experiences, like dinning outdoors and travelling, and even beget perceptions of the world as distasteful and unfriendly. As such, the authors did expect the relevant traits to be influenced by unemployment, "but were uncertain of the precise direction of influence", increase or decrease.

Re-employment

Boyce et al. further predicted that re-employment would culminate in additional changes in personality.

Method

To address their research questions, Boyce et al. used the German Socio-Economic Panel Study (SOEP), an ongoing long-running study of German households which is representative of the entire German population (West and East). A subsample of SOEP participants had answered questions on their personality in 2005 while still employed. Their employment status was recorded over four years (2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009), and their personality was again assessed in 2009. The subsample comprised 6,769 subjects (3,036 females). Of these participants, 6,308 remained employed throughout 2005-2009. To conduct a clean test of the effect of unemployment, Boyce et al. separated the remaining 461 participants into two different groups: those who experienced some unemployment but were reemployed by 2009 (251 subjects), and those who (a) had begun a phase of unemployment between 2006 and 2009, and (b) were still in the same phase of unemployment in 2009 for one, two, three or four years (210 subjects). Of these 210 subjects, 117 had been unemployed for one year, 41 had been unemployed for two years, 19 had been unemployed for three years, and 33 had been unemployed for four years. In 2005, when all subjects were employed, ages ranged from 17 to 61 years (mean age: 41 years).

Results

Unemployment had no influence, neither on Extraversion nor on Neuroticism.

Conscientiousness

The longer males spent without jobs, the larger their reductions in this trait (which is tied to work motivation, enjoyment of one's income, success at work, and to job search behaviour). By contrast, women became more conscientious in the early and late stages of unemployment, but experienced a slump (dip) in the middle of the study period. Boyce et al. speculated that women may have regained some conscientiousness by pursuing non-work-related activities traditionally associated with their gender (for example, care-giving).

Agreeableness

Compared to men who never lost their jobs, men who did lose theirs experienced increased agreeableness during the first two years of unemployment. However, after two years, the agreeableness levels of the unemployed men began to decrease and, in the long run, were lower than those of the men with jobs. For women, agreeableness declined with each year of unemployment. Boyce et al. speculated that, in early unemployment stages, there may be incentives for subjects to behave agreeable in an effort to secure a new job or placate (please) those around them, but in later years when the situation becomes endemic, such incentives may weaken. In their view, such tendencies may differ by gender according to traditional work roles.

Openness to experience

Unemployed males showed steady levels of openness in their first year of joblessness, but the levels decreased the longer they were unemployed. By contrast, unemployed females showed sharp reductions in openness in the second and third years of unemployment but rebounded in year four.

Re-employment

An examination of the re-employed subgroup revealed no evidence of personality change across the study relative to the employed group. Thus, individuals experiencing unemployment recover their pre-unemployment levels of personality. From this observation, Boyce et al. concluded that unemployment (and other environmental factors) will only influence personality in the long run, provided they are consistent and persistent.

Conclusion and implication

Previous research has shown that job loss may result in a significant deterioration in affective and mental states. The study by Boyce et al. demonstrates that unemployment can change certain aspects of personality traits as well – and, in specific stages of unemployment, not for the better. This observation led Boyce et al. to conclude that their findings call attention to unfair stigmatization as a consequence of unemployment. Other investigators have previously argued that stigma can be attached to the unemployed by attributing to them certain negative personality dispositions. Alternatively, the Boyce et al. findings indicate that the experience of unemployment itself may create the personality types which would subsequently be unfairly stigmatized against.

Public policy therefore has a key role in preventing adverse personality change in society through both lowering of unemployment rates (economic benefit) and offering greater support for the unemployed (personal growth benefit).

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