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Cognitive ability tied to better social distancing

Working memory is the workhorse of cognition. Having less of it has side effects.

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A drive up COVID-19 testing center in Florida.
Key Takeaways
  • A new study finds that people with lower working memory capacity were less likely to practice social distancing.
  • The study also found working memory was related to how fairly a subject behaved in an ultimatum game.
  • The findings help explain why some people don’t social distance and offer new ways to encourage proper distancing.

Social distancing is difficult. Few people would contest that fact. Despite this, in this time between the beginning of a pandemic and the creation of an effective vaccine, it is essential. An endless stream of scientists, major organizations, and public health experts agree on the benefits social distancing provides to public and personal health. Many of them add that proper social distancing could lower infection rates and return us to normalcy sooner.

Despite the best efforts of these experts, many other people continue to crowd bars, refuse to wear masks, and host parties. This frequently leads to predictable results, new outbreaks, and longer waits until the rest of us can go out again.

Luckily, the exasperated guideline followers of the world can take solace in the findings of a new study that suggests people who don’t follow the rules test lower for cognitive ability than those who do.

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Working memory is that part of our memory concerned with limited amounts of information used in the service of other mental processes for a short time. Several studies associate having more working memory with higher cognitive function. Of particular interest are the many studies that have shown that a higher working memory relates to being better able to follow new and complex rules, especially under stress.

This led the authors of the new study to suspect that there might be a connection between the working memory a person has and how well they socially distanced in the early days of the outbreak.

To find out, they surveyed 850 American adults from the Mechanical Turk platform immediately after the beginning of social distancing recommendations in March 2020. The questions focused on how well they were abiding by recently imposed social distancing orders. Participants also completed tests designed to measure working memory, fluid intelligence, how they viewed the costs and benefits of distancing, and the Big Five Personality Test.

Test subjects with stronger working memories were much more likely to report that they had taken precautions to avoid COVID-19, such as avoiding large gatherings, than others. The researchers also found a similar, but smaller, relationship between how well a subject socially distanced and their scores on a fluid intelligence and agreeableness test.

The researchers looked for a possible mediator in the form of the test subject’s cost-benefit analysis of social distancing. By asking subjects how much they agreed with statements such as “Social distancing may minimize the burden on medical resources, so people in need can use them,” and comparing the results between the cost and benefits questions, the researchers were able to determine how each test subject viewed the cost and benefits of distancing.

While they did discover a relationship between cost-benefit analysis and how well they distanced- people who decided the benefits of distancing outweighed the costs to themselves and others were better at distancing-the effect was only a partial meditator. This means that even after accounting for it, the amount of working memory a person had was still a factor in how much they choose to socially distance.

In a separate experiment, the researchers had test subjects play an ultimatum game. In this game, participants had to determine if they would share surplus resources with another player. In one iteration, the computer that played as the test subject’s opponent could penalize the test subject if the offer they made was deemed “unfair.”

As some of your might expect, the players with the best working memory came closest to a “fair” split, defined here as dividing the surplus in half, by a large margin. The authors suggest that this was because these subjects were better able to evaluate the consequences of not being fair and worked both to avoid punishment and maximize their reward.

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The findings suggest a correlation between working memory capacity and how well people stick to social distancing rules. This holds up after controlling for variables that might impact someone’s ability to isolate, such as socioeconomic status, age, or even mood. As the authors mention in their concluding thoughts, this does make sense given the evidence that working memory aids both in following social norms and determining benefits and risks.

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As they put it:

“…our findings are in line with the theoretical framework that social distancing compliance during the early outbreak of an infectious disease is driven by deliberate thoughts about the costs and benefits of this practice. Our novel observation is that the decision to follow the social distancing norm in prioritizing societal benefits over personal costs is contingent on one’s WM capacity, the core of human cognition.”

Co-Author Weizhen Xie expanded on this in an interview with PsyPost:

“The decision of whether or not to follow social distancing guidelines is a difficult one, especially when there is a conflict between the societal benefits (e.g., prevent straining public health resources) and personal costs (e.g., loss in social connection and financial challenges). This decision critically relies on our mental capacity in retaining multiple pieces of potentially conflicting information in our head, which is referred to as working memory capacity.”

Before you start getting too smug about how well you’ve followed social distancing regulations thus far, Co-author Weiwei Zhang wrote in an online post that working memory isn’t the whole story:

“There is no doubt that many factors we did not include in this study may also contribute to social-distancing compliance, perhaps with even stronger relationships. It is, therefore, inappropriate to attribute individual differences in social distancing behaviors entirely to one’s cognitive abilities such as working memory capacity and fluid intelligence.”

Within the study, the authors suggest that these findings might lead to new ways of helping the public comply with social distancing mandates in the future. They also express optimism that the amount of working memory needed to follow the rules will decline over time as the notion of wearing a mask and social distancing becomes more prevalent. These findings reinforce previous studies which suggest that working memory is an integral part of cognitive ability and may lead to further research on the practical results of having more or less to work with.

Many people agree that social distancing is difficult. In what sense it is difficult appears to vary between people. While it is fun to say that people who aren’t wearing masks are stupid, the findings of this study speak to the inherent difficulty in assuring mass compliance with vital yet largely voluntary and frequently novel measures.


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