The world as we know it has completely changed. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic. Scientists across the world are racing against time to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. As many as 17 million people have been infected and over 664,000 have lost their lives. Even though WHO and other public health professionals have been advocating preventive measures such as wearing a face mask when out, practising social distancing, and staying at home to curb the spread of the virus, there has been some resistance to following these norms. And now, a study reveals what makes people dismiss the warnings.
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (a peer-reviewed multidisciplinary scientific journal) has suggested that complying with social distancing norms has a lot to do with working memory. A person’s working memory capacity measures how much information they can store for a short-term, which in turn determines their mental capacities such as intelligence, comprehension and learning. Senior author of the study, Weiwei Zhang said, "The higher the working memory capacity, the more likely the social distancing behaviours will follow."
The study surveyed 850 Americans towards the end of March after President Donald Trump declared coronavirus as a national emergency in the US. The participants filled out a demographic survey, which included questionnaires on social distancing practices, depressed moods, and anxious feelings. They were also surveyed on the basis of their personalities, intelligence, and their understanding of the costs and benefits of social distancing.
According to the researchers of this study, the non-compliance behaviours during the early stage of the pandemic posed a great challenge to the public health system. The study said, "We propose that this oversight may be associated with the limitation in one’s mental capacity to simultaneously retain multiple pieces of information in working memory (WM) for rational decision making that leads to social-distancing compliance."
It was further found that the participants' social distancing compliance could be predicted by their individual differences in WM capacity, partly due to increased awareness of benefits over costs of social distancing among the higher WM capacity individuals. "Critically, the unique contribution of WM capacity to the individual differences in social distancing compliance could not be explained by other psychological and socioeconomic factors (e.g., moods, personality, education, and income levels)," the study read.
Weiwei Zhang, who is also the Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of California at Riverside, said that the study suggests that the policymakers will have to consider individuals' general cognitive abilities when promoting compliance behaviours such as wearing a mask. He also suggested keeping the public campaigns "concise and brief" in order to avoid information overload.
It’s important to note that the researchers' aim, through the study, is not to IQ-shame anyone. In fact, it's quite the contrary. The aim is to identify why some people do not social distance and to bring in strategies to improve the overall compliance.
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