You've probably seen the memes about introversion during the pandemic: the words "2020: Rise of the Introverts," next to a GIF from Terminator 2, maybe, or a graphic urging introverts to "put down your book and check on your extrovert friends. They are not OK." But does the widely expressed idea that introverts are doing better than extroverts during this time of enforced solitude hold up?
To explore how people with different personalities are faring during the pandemic, we conducted two related studies, examining whether people's feelings of social connection changed from midwinter to early April, by which time lockdowns were in full effect. One looked at almost 500 students at the University of British Columbia, the other at nearly 350 adults (primarily from the United States and United Kingdom); members of both groups completed our surveys at each time point.
The most surprising finding was the remarkable resilience we uncovered: Despite the possibly unprecedented upheaval in people's social lives, in our group of students feelings of social connection had dropped by only a tenth of a point on a 6-point scale. Among the adults, there was even a slight decrease in reported loneliness. (The two studies used slightly different measures of social connectedness.)
Our results generally refuted the idea that extroverts would be particularly tortured by being denied access to their friends and social contacts. On balance, the most extroverted individuals still felt about 30% more socially connected — a major determinant of well-being — during the lockdown than did introverts.
There was a grain of truth, however, to the jokes and memes: The gap in perceived social connectedness between extroverts and introverts narrowed during the lockdown, we found. So it's true extroverts have declined more than introverts on feelings of connection — but that's largely because they scored so much higher on that quality before the pandemic.
To distinguish introverts from extroverts, we used a standard battery of questions that probed whether people agreed with such statements as "I am someone who is outgoing, sociable," and "I am someone who tends to be quiet," rating them on a seven-point scale. (Although extroversion exists on a sliding scale, we refer to high scorers as extroverts and low scorers as introverts.) We also asked our participants a host of questions about how socially connected they felt both before and during the pandemic — a measure that is distinct from how many friends they have.
Almost all of the participants said they were practicing social distancing in early April, and the vast majority had not come nearer than six feet to anyone outside their household on the preceding day.
Given such a significant change in social behavior, we were particularly stunned by how high feelings of social connection remained. Our findings appear to conflict with recent headlines warning that the pandemic has produced a potentially health-endangering crisis of loneliness. Consider that by early April, our university students had left behind their classmates and friends, trading the buzz of campus life for the solitude of online learning. Yet there had been barely a dent in their self-reported feelings of interpersonal connection.
Human evolution has left our species with a fundamental need to belong. We suspect that, after the usual opportunities for social contact were stripped away, this impulse led people to seek out substitutes that partly filled the void. From hopping on Zoom for happy hours with old friends to joining neighbors in mass applause for front line workers, people are finding creative new ways to satisfy the primal need for connection. These efforts seem to be paying off, at least for the participants in our studies.
These observations come with caveats, of course. The people we studied not representative of the world's population, or even of their own countries. And our sample was limited to those doing well enough to complete surveys: People who were ill with covid-19 or just rocking themselves in a closet from all the stress probably wouldn't have participated.
But it's reassuring that we saw similar patterns across two very different samples: ethnically diverse students enrolled at a top Canadian university and predominantly white, low-to-middle income adults spread across North America and Europe. So, it's unlikely that our results could be explained by a seasonal quirk, such as the arrival of final exams or the shift from wintry gloom to cherry blossoms. Still, to obtain a broader portrait of how well the world's population is coping during this crisis, researchers will have to conduct more studies.
We would not want to dismiss individual instances of deep loneliness, either. Our data suggest that a subset of people were indeed suffering. For example, approximately 10% of our university students showed more than a full-point drop in feelings of social connection, on that six-point scale. Their experiences are legitimate and important — just less common than we might have assumed.
In general, people may underestimate their own capacity for resilience, which can bias the results of surveys exploring the psychological effects of negative events. When individuals are asked how they're doing, relative to the past, they tend to distort their perceptions of their past selves to line up with their beliefs of how they should have changed. To counter that tendency, we asked our participants how they were doing at each time point — enabling us to observe how their reports actually shifted over time.
As researchers who have studied human well-being for decades, we've been amazed by how effectively people have coped with the momentous social restrictions brought on by the first wave of the covid-19 pandemic. But these are early days: There's no way to know if people's feelings of social connection will remain intact as these restrictions drag on. So, yes, do check on your friends, whether they're extroverted or introverted.
Dunn is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and co-author of "Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending." Lyubomirsky, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, is the author of "The How of Happiness." This piece was written for The Washington Post.