Unemployment might impact more than a person's bank account. According to new research published by the American Psychological Association, unemployment can change a person's personality, making some people less agreeable, open and conscientious. And those changes can make it more difficult to find work.

"The results challenge the idea that our personalities are ‘fixed’ and show that the effects of external factors such as unemployment can have large impacts on our basic personality," one of the scientists behind the study, Dr. Christopher J. Boyce, said of the findings. "This indicates that unemployment has wider psychological implications than previously thought."

Boyce and his colleagues looked at a sample of 6,769 German adults (3,733 men and 3,036 women). All participants took personality tests over the course of four years. During that time, 210 people were unemployed for between one and four years and 251 were unemployed for less than a year before finding work.

Using the personality tests the researchers looked at what are known as the "Big Five" personality traits. Those include conscientiousness, agreeableness, openness, extraversion and neuroticism. The first three traits in that list were affected by unemployment, but they didn’t change as soon as one lost or left his or her job. Men, for example, experienced increased agreeableness during their first two years of unemployment. After two years, levels of agreeableness began to fall and eventually became lower than those of the men who had jobs.

Boyce said about these findings, “In early unemployment stages, there may be incentives for individuals to behave agreeably in an effort to secure another job or placate those around them, but in later years when the situation becomes endemic, such incentives may weaken.”

For men, the longer they were unemployed, the bigger their drop in conscientiousness became. That differed from women who may have gained levels of conscientiousness in the early and late stages of being without a job. The researchers speculated that might be because the women took part in activities that were unrelated to work such as caregiving.

When it came to openness, men’s levels decreased after their first year of unemployment. Women displayed sharp reductions in the same quality during their second and third year, and then rebounded in the fourth year.

The three personality traits that are altered by unemployment, the study authors suggest, may negatively impact a person’s likelihood of finding work. Conscientiousness is defined by the study as an individual’s tendency to be goal focused and highly motivated, and is linked with finding achievement in the work place. Unemployment may hamper conscientiousness, the study suggests, because the unemployed individual has fewer opportunities to display that kind of behavior.

Agreeableness and openness may too be tied to the lack of a steady work environment since they are both social behaviors. Without a job the opportunity to interact socially, compromise and convey ideas, all noted as social behaviors, are fewer and therefore might diminish.

However, the study notes that the impact on agreeableness and openness isn’t quite clear as unemployment can result in new social engagements. Fewer financial resources might give the unemployed more time to share with others or to reevaluate their lives and focus less on material gains. Those same benefits that come from not having financial means have a flip side. The paper explains that the unemployed are also less likely to have novel experiences such as travel or dining out which could make a person perceive the world as unfriendly or distasteful.

This research, Boyce believes, shows that the effect of unemployment is more than simply an economic concern. It can lead to unemployed people being unfairly stigmatized as a result of these changes in personality and behavior.

“Public policy therefore has a key role to play in preventing adverse personality change in society through both lower unemployment rates and offering greater support for the unemployed,” Boyce said. “Policies to reduce unemployment are therefore vital not only to protect the economy but also to enable positive personality growth in individuals.”

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Being unemployed might change basic personality traits
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