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Worse Short-Term Memory Predicts Poor COVID Distancing in US
  Mark Mascolini
Worse short-term "working memory" predicted worse compliance with social distancing to avoid COVID-19 in a survey of 850 US residents early in the US epidemic [1]. The contribution of working memory to differences in social distancing could not be explained by moods, personality, education, income, or other psychological or socioeconomic factors.
Working memory is the piece of our recall apparatus that holds limited bits of information over a short period to assist other ongoing mental activities. Higher working memory capacity often fits with better cognitive and affective outcomes. National Institutes of Health (NIH) researchers who conducted this study propose that concern over costs of social distancing while ignoring its potential public health benefits "may be associated with the limitation in one's mental capacity to simultaneously retain multiple pieces of information in working memory for rational decision making that leads to social-distancing compliance." In short, poor working memory favors poor adherence to social-distancing directives.
The NIH researchers tested their hypothesis in two studies of 850 US residents during the 2 weeks after the US federal government declared COVID-19 a national emergency (March 13-26, 2020). In that period social distancing "progressively developed into a norm."
The first study assessed respondents' compliance with social distancing, measured their working memory with a change-localization task, and asked questions about mood-related conditions such as depression, anxiety, or sleep quality. Study 2 repeated study 1 and factored out the possible impact of several personality variables on working memory and social-distancing compliance. (In the change-localization task, respondents briefly see two sets of five colored squares, then have to identify a color change from set 1 to set 2.)
Participants came from the online Amazon Mechanical Turk (mTurk) experimental platform and had a computer IP address placing them in the United States. Of the 850 participants, 410 (48%) were women and age averaged 38.2 (+/- 12.0) years.
Social-distancing compliance correlated significantly with the ability to retain a certain number of colored squares in working memory. In other words, better compliance correlated with better working memory (r = 0.29 in study 1, P < 0.001; r = 0.25 in study 2, P < 0.001). Participants with higher social-distancing compliance scores left home less in study 1 and study 2 and washed their hands more in both studies. But social-distancing compliance did not correlate with education or income levels.
In study 1 working memory capacity remained a good predictor of social-distancing compliance after statistical adjustment for mood variables (such as depression, anxiety, and poor sleep quality) plus demographic variables including age, gender, education, and income (β = 0.18 [0.09 to 0.28], P < 0.001). In study 2 people with certain personality types (such as agreeableness) had better social-distancing compliance. But individual variations in personality did not explain the unique contribution of working memory to social-distancing compliance.
The researchers believe their findings indicate that "the decision to follow the social-distancing norm in prioritizing societal benefits over personal costs is contingent on one's working memory capacity, the core of human cognition." They note that working memory capacity "is closely related to prefrontal mental processes, such as decision making, cognitive control, and fluid intelligence." The NIH team suggests these findings offer preliminary support for strategies aimed at improving prefrontal function, such as working memory training, to counter noncompliance with social norms.
1. Xie W, Campbell S, Zhang W. Working memory capacity predicts individual differences in social-distancing compliance during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2020 Jul 10:202008868. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2008868117

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