Which of These 3 Lockdown Personalities Fits You Best?

New research looks at personality, creativity, and solitude during the pandemic.

Posted Jul 03, 2020

By Grant H. Brenner

Suddenly we were stuck at home, adapting to isolation and if employed, balancing private and professional lives in a new container. We may not get outside enough, compounding the problem. COVID-19 is already impacting mental health, and there is no clear end in sight.

Fortress of solitude

Astronauts, explorers, naval personnel, and members of certain other professions are chosen for psychological stability, their natural resilience trained up so they can handle prolonged isolation. They are equipped to deal with restricted space and minimal human interaction. Not so for most.

To understand how people adapt to such circumstances, researchers Estelle Michinov and Nicholas Michinov of the University of Rennes, France (2020) conducted a study (released as a preprint; not yet peer-reviewed or published in a journal) to identify different constellations of personality and function under isolation conditions.

In their paper, they review existing perspectives on social isolation. Aristotle told us back in 350 BC that human beings are “social animals." Contemporary psychologists have used various names for this: “belongingness,” “relatedness,” “connectedness,” “the need to belong,” and “we-ness,” to name a few. Freud identified the key role of drives for connection with others, calling it “libido”—a term often misrepresented to refer merely to sexuality, but which more properly refers to attachment

For many, isolation from others equates with loneliness and pain, negatively affecting mental and physical well-being, cognitive function, and quality of life. Loneliness is associated with poor outcomes, and is a key mitigating factor in how social isolation impacts each person. Isolation is used as a punishment, deterrent, and motivator during imprisonment, so powerful is its impact on us.

For others, being alone is preferred, and generative. Solitude, the authors emphasize, may be constructive. Being alone can be tremendously fertile, depending on one's personality and self-relationship.

The new paper notes three previously proposed, broad conceptions of how people might experience aloneness, capturing positive and negative aspects:

  1. Self-discovery, creativity and problem-solving
  2. Loneliness and diversion
  3. Intimacy and spirituality

Isolation may lead to personal growth, allowing for insight and reflection, opportunity for creativity, and—an effect which may catalyze psychotherapeutic progress—a break from unhealthy behaviors, including compulsive and impulsive dating and other forms of socializing, time, and existential press to reconsider the meaning of life. Pandemic-enforced “social sobriety” for some liberates bound resources, allowing us to deal with long-stagnant issues.

Studying responses to lockdown

In mid-April 2020, Michinov and Michinov used an online survey to gain insight about how people respond to stay-at-home conditions, and 438 participants responded over a span of 55 days, providing demographic information and completing the following measures:

  1. Stress: “How do you currently feel about this lockdown situation?”, rating degree of stress on a scale from 1 to 10.
  2. Anxiety: Measured with the Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI), which looks at both temperamental (trait) and transient (state) levels of anxiety.
  3. Loneliness: Measured with the Three-Item Loneliness Scale (TILS).
  4. Preference for Solitude: Using the Preference for Solitude Scale (PSS), with 12 pick-one choice questions including “I enjoy being around people vs. I enjoy being by myself” and “Time spent alone is often productive for me vs. Time spent alone is often time wasted for me” to estimate both predilection for solitude as well as whether solitude is viewed as productive.
  5. Personality: Using the Ten-Item Personality Inventory (TIPI), which measures personality according to the Five Factor Model, or so-called “Big 5 Traits” of Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (OCEAN).
  6. Creativity: Researchers used three different tests to look at different kinds of creativity, the first measure “divergent” thinking, and the other two kinds of “convergent” thinking. Divergent thinking looks at open-ended creativity, whereas convergent thinking is about finding closure completing tasks. In the first task, participants were asked to think up as many uses for a cardboard box they could. The second task challenged participants’ ability to use insight for problem-solving. The last task, called the Remote Associates Test (RAT), required participants to identify one word which associated well with three other words presented.


About 75 percent of participants were women, on average age 28 years old, approximately 50 percent students, 40 percent employed, and almost 10 percent unemployed. About 55 percent lived in a house, nearly 20 percent in apartments, and the remainder in other dwellings. Fifty-three percent lived in families with children, 25 percent lived with a partner, 11.2 percent shared an apartment, and almost 10.7 percent lived alone.

Women and men had significantly different characteristics, upon initial analysis. Women reported higher stress and anxiety, lower emotional stability, and performed better on the divergent thinking task, coming up with more ideas. Men reported a greater preference for solitude and had higher levels of introversion. However, the gender differences were not significant after controlling for preference for solitude and personality.

Anxiety, as expected, was elevated for all participants compared with non-pandemic reference values. Overall stress and loneliness levels were elevated, but not so severe—study authors suggested this was because it was early in lockdown, relatively speaking. In the absence of intervention, stress and loneliness are expected to increase with increasing stay-at-home duration.

Three Clusters

There were three clusters of overlapping personality, approach to problem-solving, and attitudes toward solitude:

  1. Affiliative: Participants with an affiliative style preferred the company of others. Stress and anxiety were higher in this group. They expressed lower preference for solitude, were more extroverted, very emotionally stable, and tended to be open to experience. They performed similarly on the insight-oriented problem-solving task as the other profiles.
  2. Emotionally Stable Lonely: These participants were more emotionally stable, tended to be introverted, and preferred solitude to seeking out positive experiences with others. They reported less loneliness during lockdown and did better on the RAT convergent creativity task. Such tasks require self-reflection and introspection, authors note. 
  3. Emotionally Unstable Lonely: Participants in this group reported more social anxiety, and difficulty regulating emotions. They tend to use solitude to cope with social anxiety, but would otherwise benefit from human contact. Stress and anxiety were higher in this group. They performed better on divergent creativity, particularly when accompanied by greater trait openness to experience.

Further considerations

Until there is a definitive solution, our lives are altered by COVID-19 in unpredictably transient or more durable ways.

In some areas, the first wave has passed. People may be gingerly venturing out with an abundance of caution. In other places, people rush out capriciously, resulting in sharp spikes and renewed restrictions. For others, wide-spread observance of preventive measures allow for a staged return of socializing, with significant modification. Isolation may be just around the corner.

Making the best of it, we may harvest the fruits of solitude to foster resilience and post-traumatic growth. This pandemic has accelerated many changes, the adoption of technology, the need to be more attuned to our impact on nature and how indiscretion may come back to bite. Yet denial remains a powerful and deadly force, often yielding only to confrontation.

We can glean insights through considering how the three personality profiles resonate individually, and in groups during lockdown. Putting someone who is affiliative together with someone who is emotionally stable lonely may lead to friction around how they want to spend time together.

Understanding the three profiles is also useful in assessing and planning for working from home, both for individuals and groups. Armed with insight, we can make better decisions about how to optimize well-being in the face of uncertain isolation.


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