A newly released study co-authored by a UC Riverside professor found that people with higher working memory capacity had an increased awareness of the benefits over costs of social distancing and showed more compliance with recommended guidelines during the early stage of the COVID-19 outbreak.

According to Weiwei Zhang, an associate professor of psychology at UCR, the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences offers potential strategies to mitigate social distancing noncompliance in a public health crisis.

“The higher the working memory capacity, the more likely that social distancing behaviors will follow,” said Zhang, the paper’s senior author. “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.”

According to Zhang, working memory is the psychological process of holding information in the mind for a brief period of time — typically, just seconds. The amount of information working memory can hold briefly — its capacity — is predictive of many mental abilities such as intelligence, comprehension and learning, according to the professor.

“Our findings reveal a novel cognitive root of social distancing compliance during the early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Zhang said. “We found social distancing compliance may rely on an effortful decision process of evaluating the costs versus benefits of these behaviors in working memory — instead of, say, mere habit. This decisional process can be less effortful for people with larger working memory capacity, potentially leading to more social distancing behaviors.”

About 850 U.S. residents participated in the study between March 13-25, the first two weeks following the U.S. presidential declaration of a national emergency about the coronavirus pandemic. According to UCR, they filled out a demographic survey, then completed a set of questionnaires that captured individual differences in social distancing compliance, depressed mood and anxious feelings. Personality variables, intelligence, and participants’ understanding about the costs and benefits of social distancing practice were also measured.

“Individual differences in working memory capacity can predict social distancing compliance just as well as some social factors such as personality traits,” Zhang said. “This suggests policy makers will need to consider individuals’ general cognitive abilities when promoting compliance behaviors such as wearing a mask or engaging in physical distancing.”

Zhang said media materials promoting compliance behaviors should avoid information overload.

“The message in such materials should be succinct, concise and brief,” he said. “Make the decision process easy for people.”

Zhang said he expects the contribution of working memory will decline as new social norms, such as wearing a mask or socially distancing, are acquired by society over time.

“Eventually social distancing and wearing face masks will become a habitual behavior and their relationship with working memory will diminish,” he said.

The team now plans to analyze data it collected across the United States, China and South Korea to identify protective social and mental factors that help people cope with the pandemic, according to Zhang.

The study’s corresponding author was Weizhen Xie of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke of the National Institutes of Health, who received his doctoral degree in psychology at UCR.

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