A note on our PNAS paper regarding working memory & social distancing

Our recent PNAS paper reported that working memory capacity could explain unique variance in a self-report measure of social-distancing compliance and a task-based measure of fairness norm compliance during the early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic. This observation does not diminish the impacts of various socioeconomic and psychological factors on these behaviors. In fact, in our study, age, gender, depressed mood, an individual’s willingness to share wealth with others, and certain personality traits were found to be statistically associated with social distancing compliance. Complementary to these observations, our findings suggest that working memory can explain social distancing behaviors uniquely and differently from all these other factors.  This effect likely reflects the potentially negative impacts of information overload on everyday decision making. Specifically, when we are considering multiple pieces of conflicting information regarding the benefits and costs of social distancing, our capacity-limited working memory could be overloaded, and subsequently lead to suboptimal decisions.

In our study, the experimental measure of reasoning and problem-solving skill, often called “fluid intelligence,” was found to be statistically associated with the self-report measure of social distancing behaviors. However, this relationship largely attenuated after we statistically controlled for the other studied factors (see model #2 in Table 2).

People have various reasons to engage in social distancing practices in different ways. Our study found that multiple factors were associated with social distancing compliance. 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. Our study is by no means an endorsement of the oversimplification of attributing social-distancing non-compliance to “low cognitive ability.”

We look forward to further contributing to timely and meaningful research toward understanding the impacts of COVID-19 on society.


From Weizhen Xie ad Weiwei Zhang, and edited by our Sr. Public Information Officer, Iqbal Pittalwala.

1 Comment

  1. From: Amishi Jha, Univ of Miami
    Re: compromised working memory, considerations for public health during a global pandemic

    Thanks for sharing this ‘beyond the headline’ clarification of your paper Weiwei Zhang

    1. Sadly, “cognitive fog”—is our collective pandemic symptom.

    2. Current public health instructions on what to do are not complex.

    load = 3

    And people do not seem confused or unaware of this.

    3. The problem is that there is a distrust THAT these guidelines should be followed.

    Low working memory makes it difficult to flexibly update mental models, as new info is received (e.g from ‘no mask’ to #wearamask)

    Pointing out to people that mental rigidity is related to (a symptom of) having low WM will not work—-since meta-cognitive awareness and monitoring also tank with low WM capacity.

    4. New Solution?
    Make load=1

    And mandate this til our ICUs can go down from 200% to 50%

    These are desperate times!

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