The psychological damage caused by unemployment is greater than previously thought, according to a study led by researchers at the University of Stirling.
Stirling’s behavioural scientists have found that unemployment, well-known to cause substantial drops in personal wellbeing, can also cause large changes to a person’s core personality.
Personality is typically considered stable across time but the researchers found that the experience of unemployment led to reduced levels of conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness; signifying that individuals lose motivation, become less considerate and sympathetic, and less curious about the world around them. These changes were greater the longer an individual spent unemployed.
Lead researcher Dr Christopher Boyce, from the University of Stirling’s Behavioural Science Centre, said: "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."
Participants in the study completed personality tests at two time-points, four years apart. All participants were employed at the time of the first test. At the time of the second test, they had either remained in employment, been unemployed for one to four years, or were re-employed after a period of unemployment.
The results showed that compared with those who had remained in employment unemployed people experienced significant patterns of change in their agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness. Re-employed individuals experienced limited change.
The study suggests that the effect of unemployment across society is more than just an economic concern. The unemployed may be unfairly stigmatised as a result of unavoidable personality change, potentially creating a downward cycle of difficulty in the labour market. 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.
Dr Boyce said: "A high national unemployment rate may have significant implications across society. For example, high unemployment may hinder the development of desirable social and economic behaviours, such as participation in social activities and better health behaviours.
"Policies to reduce unemployment are therefore vital not only to protect the economy but also to enable positive personality growth in individuals."
The research was carried out by Dr Christopher Boyce, Alex Wood and Michael Daly of the University of Stirling’s Behavioural Science Centre and Constantine Sedikides of the University of Southampton. It used data from over 6,769 people drawn from the German Socio-Economic Study (SOEP), an ongoing study of German households.
The Behavioural Science Centre
Behavioural Science combines economics with psychology and a range of other disciplines.
The University of Stirling is the only university in Scotland with a specialist Behavioural Science Centre. They are consulted by a range of global organisations and policymakers. They also collaborate with experts at other leading universities on research highly relevant to business, industry and society.
The Centre is based within the University’s Management School, which offers an MSc in Behavioural Sciences for Management. Graduates are highly sought after by organisations looking to hire talented professionals with the ability to find innovative solutions to the world’s biggest challenges. For more information, please visit www.stir.ac.uk/management/research/behavioural-science-centre.