What’s worse than being unemployed? Being told that because you’re unemployed, you’re getting meaner. Sorry to break it to you, but that’s exactly what researchers from the University of Stirling in Scotland have said: unemployment alters our personality and basically makes us less friendly.

The researchers studied job data from Germany, and found that it actually can change our core personality, with both men and women becoming less conscientious, damaging our prospects of finding a job. So yeah, added to the fact it knocks your confidence, gives you increased anxiety and can send you in a spiral of depression, our personalities are at risk. Not the most comforting thing to read, is it?

To find out why, and whether unemployment does actually make us meaner, we got in touch with Nimita from the Career Psychologist. They work with everyone from students and graduates, to those who are advanced in their careers. They look at the psychology behind making good career decisions and helping people to get unstuck. What she says makes sense, a lot of sense. Two things to begin with:

      1. Is it actually a thing?

As in, has Nimita experienced unemployed people being mean? Well, kinda. “It’s definitely something I’ve come across from the link between unemployment and depression,” she explains. “If somebody is out of a job from six months to a year or longer, you definitely do get a huge change from that depression that implicates your mood and your personality. From my experience working with unemployed people for a while, it’s quite anecdotal, it can spiral out of control and really affect people’s personality as well.”

      2. Let’s try to narrow it down…

It’s such a huge, unnecessary and slightly exaggerated generalisation to utter the phrase ‘unemployment makes us mean’. Yes, there are tendencies that show we might come across as less friendly (Nimita explains why, just hold out), but it’s more important to remember how big the idea of ‘personality’ is. Personalities are made up of loads of components, and affected by other changes in our lives.

“It’s more about noticing changes in personality in terms of the timeline,” Nimita adds. “The whole concept of personality is a little bit tricky. It goes into thinks like what do we mean by personality, what areas of the personality is it affecting, etc and it’s a whole mind ball!”

The psychology behind it

We’ve established it’s a huge overgeneralisation to say that no job = mean person. Nimita suggests it’s more about affecting our self-being. Coupled with the snowball effect of more rejections, and a longer time unemployed, it’s understandable to see how depression is linked, especially if you don’t take rejection well.

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“Unemployment really does affect your self being,” Nimita begins to explain. “Because of that, it spirals, so you then get into things like depression, take rejection very badly, and don’t know how to deal with that level rejection.”

“It’s a snowball effect. Self esteem is a subset of your personality, so sometimes people have more self esteem and that really sees them through more rejection where they can get back up so they keep going. If your self esteem isn’t that high to begin with, you’re going to be someone who takes that rejection and doesn’t get back up as quickly or bounce back straight away.”

So what’s with all this ‘mean’ chat? It’s a reaction to rejections. It’s a reaction to us having a jaded view of the job market. Us thinking ‘I never get past the interview stage’. “If you’ve gone through lots of interviews and haven’t been offered a job, it’s going to make you a little bit more bitter or jaded and stereotype the whole job process as being a negative one,” Nimita says. “Your self esteem is knocked, whether or not you’re going to get that job. So you become a bit more disillusioned with how you look at things. It comes down to perspective, particularly with people who have gone to lots of different interviews. Before they have even hit that interview, they’ve got this demeanour, which says to the recruiter ‘I’ve had enough’. It can actually come across that way in the interview aswell, they’ve never met you but you come in and you’re just carrying all that rejection on your shoulder.”

It makes sense though, doesn’t it? That knock on effect? Think of it like this: one tourist comes up to you at 10am and asks where to get the bus to Oxford street. You spend time explaining. And then another tourist asks the same thing, and you explain. By the sixth person asking for directions, you treat them differently like ‘OH MY GOD AGAIN?!’, even though they had no idea you’d already been asked five times… “It’s more about the knock-on effect,” adds Nimita. “There’s a whole area in isolation, you feel like you’re alone and no one really gets it. The whole part of the lifestyle is that you’re actually behind everyone else, and that affects it aswell, because you start feeling things like envy and jealousy when your friends get jobs and you don’t.”

The science-y bit

Our brains are wired to take note of negative experiences, and it’s something you’re [probably aware of. Your teacher or lecturer can praise your work for six months, but as soon as they think your essay is awful, that’s ALL you focus on. Not the fact you’ve been damn good at essay-writing the past six months. “With a negative experience, the synapse in our brain registers that and takes note. We can have 10 positive moments, and the negative experience will always trump all 10 of those. Why do we remember the bad stuff? It’s the way our brains are wired when they’re remembering us experiencing that. It’s neuro science.”

“If we have a really good experience with a recruiter and then we go to another company and it’s really bad, our brain wires itself to the negative situation. It’s good to become aware of it. You can have more experiences where you’re retraining your brain to form more connections about the positive scenario again and again.”

But it’s also about your own thought processes. “If we keep thinking something like I’m not good enough for that job, your brain is going to keep rewiring to say yep, you’re not going to get that job!’ You need to almost retrain your brain, and it can take a lot of effort!”

How to stop it

That is, how to stop being mean(!). Nimita suggests two main ways to gauge whether your personality is shifting in the realms of unemployment.

  1. Self awareness: The first is the thing around your own self awareness so are you aware of how you’re coming across initially to recruiters and other people. Identify how you’re feeling and gauge whether this is affecting how you are coming across. Actually being AWARE of the fact that you are feeling bitter can help you realise that other people are identifying this too. Pout yourself in the position of a recruiter and see how they’re seeing you.
  2. Are you getting out there and reaching out? Have you got friends in the same boat? It fills the isolation because you’re not alone, but you can share ideas and tips about how to go about things. Get feedback. If you didn’t communicate exactly what it was you were trying to say, being open to new ideas and one of the ways to do that is to meet people, talk to them, talk to the organisations you’re trying to get into and set up coffees and ask what do I need to do to get in! The basics of psychology – people like familiarity so if you’ve seen someone beofre or got in touch with them before the official job has come up, and somebody with look at your CV and be like oh I know that person. We are wired to hone in on familiarity, not uncommon that they’ll invite you for interviews because they are curious because they’ve heard of you before.

So yeah, it’s not all that bad. Just remember when you’re going into that next interview how exactly you’re coming across….!

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How to deal with unemployment anxiety

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Photo Credit: Lee Morley