People who refuse to follow social distancing or wear masks may have problems with working memory: Study

Working memory helps people temporarily store and manage information. It plays a crucial role in carrying out tasks that require intelligence, comprehension, and learning, say experts


                            People who refuse to follow social distancing or wear masks may have problems with working memory: Study
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Many Americans refuse to put on masks or follow social distancing in crowded spaces, citing freedom, and a couple of other reasons. A new study, which digs into the minds of Americans during the early stages of the outbreak, reveals an explanation for the behavior: a limited mental capacity to grasp information -- otherwise called working memory.

Working memory helps people temporarily store and manage information. The capacity or the amount of information an individual can hold for a brief period plays a crucial role in carrying out tasks that require intelligence, comprehension, and learning, say the researchers from the University of California, Riverside. 

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“The higher the working memory capacity, the more likely that social distancing behaviors will follow,” said Weiwei Zhang, an associate professor of psychology and co-author of the study. “Interestingly, this relationship holds even after we statistically control for relevant psychological and socioeconomic factors such as depressed and anxious moods, personality traits, education, intelligence, and income," he added.

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Safety guidelines such as social distancing and masks are crucial in stemming the spread before a vaccine arrives. The control measure is successful only when people show compliance. To understand why some people resist adopting safety recommendations, Zhang and his colleagues came up with a hypothesis: the decision-making process, where individuals evaluate the merits of social distancing versus costs, could depend on the working memory.

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Safety guidelines such as social distancing and masks are crucial in stemming the spread before a vaccine arrives. (Getty Images)

To test their idea, the researchers surveyed 850 residents from March 13 to March 25, 2020 — the period after President Donald Trump declared the pandemic a national emergency. These participants were asked to fill out questionnaires that looked at individual differences in social distancing compliance, depressed mood, and anxious feelings. They also looked at personality variables, intelligence, and the understanding of the costs and benefits of social distancing practice.

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Their analysis of the responses supported the team's hypothesis. It "highlights the critical role of one’s working memory capacity in social-distancing compliance during the early stage of the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic," they wrote in their study. There is more. The differences in working memory capacity between individuals can predict social distancing compliance just as well as some social factors such as personality traits, Zhang said.

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The findings call for measures that can better educate people with limited mental abilities. “This suggests policymakers will need to consider individuals’ general cognitive abilities when promoting compliance behaviors such as wearing a mask or engaging in physical distancing," Zhang added.

“The bottom line is we should not rely on habitual behaviors since social distancing is not yet adequately established in US society,” Zhang said. “Before social distancing becomes a habit and a well-adopted social norm, the decision to follow social distancing and wearing masks would be mentally effortful. Consequently, we will have to deliberately make the effort to overcome our tendency to avoid effortful decisions, such as to not practice social distancing.”

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As time progresses, social distancing might become a norm, which will, in turn, diminish its relationship with the working memory. The team now has its eyes set on identifying which mental and social factors help people deal with the pandemic better. They also hope to study the link between working memory and racial discrimination.

The study is published in PNAS.

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