Published: 5 May 2020, 09:12 | By: Axel Burchardt
What does a crisis such as the current one do to the individual?
Neyer: As a personality psychologist, I find it more interesting to turn the question around: what does the individual do to the crisis? And not what the crisis does to the individual. There is no question that we are all very worried and under extreme strain due to the contact restrictions. Non-trivial, however, is the question as to the different ways in which we deal with these pressures. Because there is no optimal strategy that I would recommend to everyone equally. It is rather the case that each person has to find out for himself or herself how best to get through this period. There are very individual strategies for coping with such crises, and these must always fit the individual.
The crisis situation seems to be changing people’s character traits. Are people suddenly becoming hoarders, deniers, corona activists or defensive optimists?
I do not expect this crisis to change our personality. We do have to change our behaviour and adapt to the situation, but our personality stays the same, thank goodness. It would be terrible if this period shook us so profoundly that we all suddenly changed. Instead, it is remarkable, and empirically well documented, that people may suffer in times of crisis and disaster, but still remain who they are. I therefore regard the stability of the personality as a strong asset on which we can build even in these times. I find it reassuring to know that people can adapt and, at the same time, stay true to themselves.
Does the crisis act like a magnifying glass on the human psyche?
In a situation as uncertain and unpredictable as the current one, we can indeed observe interesting differences in personality. Even though everyone is buying more toilet paper now, there may be people who are in particular need of security and control who hoard more toilet paper than the average. And people who are innately more optimistic, and who go through life wearing rose-tinted spectacles, will not perceive the situation to be as threatening as pessimists who are always negative about everything anyway. Also, people who are more action-oriented approach threatening situations more assertively than people who are more reserved and prefer to wait until the situation has relaxed. These examples give an impression of the diversity of personality and show that everyone bears their own personal risk during this time. There is no gold standard for dealing individually with crises.
Are such character traits inherent in all people?
Reducing people to unique traits such as optimism or pessimism makes little sense. Personality encompasses many facets which are very individual and make up the special character of each person. We now know that the variability of such traits or character profiles are influenced in equal parts genetically and by the environment. Genetic and environmental influences are in a state of dynamic interaction, so personality is never predetermined. But its individual development potential is of course limited by these very influences. This enables us to predict personality development to a moderate degree and to estimate how certain people will react to critical situations. However, we are not clairvoyant and we cannot accurately predict what they will do.
Some people meticulously comply with the restrictive rules, others more or less, and some do not stick to them at all. Do the character traits of a person underlie the difference in behaviour when facing the same situation? Are there also any fundamental mechanisms?
Each person deals differently with threat and uncertainty, and personality differences naturally have a significant influence. Excessive caution can be an expression of underlying anxiety and extreme recklessness an expression of a naive belief in one’s own invulnerability. Furthermore, the tendency not to adhere to established rules may be due to a strong motivation for autonomy and the opposite on a strong sense of obedience to authority. It makes no sense to judge all people in the same way and to try to influence or even educate them in one particular direction. Instead, I argue that people should be made aware of their potential and limits – or, to put it simply: their strengths and weaknesses – as early as possible in their childhood and youth. Only people who know themselves very well are able, in a situation such as the one we are now experiencing, to assess their individual risks reasonably accurately and adjust their behaviour accordingly.
Working from home used to seem like a dream for some people. Now they are doing just that and it seems more like a nightmare. Do people in a crisis perceive things differently from the way they do in ‘normal’ times?
In general, people tend to judge their own personal character traits more positively than others do. This strengthens self-esteem and seems to be very healthy. It is no surprise to me, therefore, that many overestimate their ability to be alone and then have problems working from home. Humans have a fundamental need for social contact and intimacy, even if the strength of their social needs differs for genetic and environmental reasons. For example, about 20% of all adults in Germany now live alone. In a German Research Foundation project, we are currently studying what makes people living alone strong and under what circumstances they can satisfy their social needs and achieve a high quality of life. Such studies are especially relevant at this time, in order to understand how people react very differently to being alone and to voluntary or forced isolation.
Do people learn from such a crisis and change?
Of course, people can learn and adapt their behaviour, but they do not have to change their personality as a result. I find it politically and socially unhelpful to demand that people should change their personality. We have to accept that no two people are identical and give everyone the chance to fulfil their potential in the best way possible. This makes our society richer and more human. In such a crisis, I also feel that it makes more sense to encourage people to reflect on their individual potential and strengths, and to be aware of their possible weaknesses, so that they get through this crisis in good shape.
Almost everyone remembers 9/11. What will remain in people’s memories of the corona crisis of 2020? And will people change after the crisis?
I am not sure whether, later on, we will be able to remember accurately this situation and what we felt and thought about it. In line with Kierkegaard, I rather expect us to live life forwards, but to understand it backwards. This means that, in retrospect, we will remember very personally what we are experiencing collectively today and process what happened in accordance with our self-concept, that is to say, in congruence with our personality, and thus we will believe that we know who we are.
Can a crisis also have positive effects on the psyche?
It can of course have positive effects. At best, we will learn something about ourselves and others. For example, we can have new experiences in our life with our partner, family and circle of friends, which will give us more security and enrich us. However, I do not want to spread any naïve optimism here, because I also know that many people are currently having bad experiences in their close relationships, which they cannot simply put to one side.
Finally, a personal question: Has this crisis situation changed you personally? Are you now doing things that you previously thought impossible?
Not really, no.