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The pandemic may have impaired people’s cognitive abilities and altered risk perception at a time when making the right health choices is critically important.
The COVID-19 pandemic has tested our psychological limits. The stress of potential illness and the confusion of constantly changing health information and new restrictions has affected some people more than others.
Researchers surveyed more than 1,500 Americans online from April to June, 2020. They asked participants to rate their level of worry about the COVID-19 pandemic and complete a battery of psychological tests to measure their basic cognitive abilities like processing and maintaining information in mind. The researchers then compared the data to results of the same tests collected before the pandemic.
For example, participants completed an information processing test where they were asked to match pairs of digits and symbols according to a fixed rule. Participants’ risk attitudes were measured using an economic decision task where they made a series of hypothetical choices between a ‘certain’ option (e.g., a sure win of $75), and a “risky” option (e.g. a 25% chance of winning $0 and a 75% chance of winning $100).
The researchers found that those who experienced more pandemic-related worry had reduced information processing speed, ability to retain information needed to perform tasks, and heightened sensitivity to the odds they were given when taking risks.
The pandemic group performed more poorly on the simple cognitive tasks than the pre-pandemic group. Also, participants in the last wave of data collection showed slower processing speed, lower ability to maintain goals in mind, and were more sensitive to risk than those in the first wave.
Interestingly, the study found that pandemic worry predicted individuals’ tendency to distort described risk levels: underweighting likely probabilities and overweighting unlikely probabilities. This suggests that worry related to COVID may have affected people’s decision-making style, which is crucial as it may influence people’s decisions about getting a COVID-19 vaccine.
“The basic cognitive abilities measured here are crucial for healthy daily living and decision-making,” says first author Kevin da Silva Castanheira, a graduate student in McGill University’s psychology department. “The impairments associated with worry observed here suggest that under periods of high stress, like a global pandemic, our ability to think, plan, an evaluate risks is altered. Understanding these changes are critical as managing stressful situations often relies on these abilities.”
“The impact of stress and of worry on cognitive function are well known, but are typically studied in the laboratory setting,” says coauthor Madeleine Sharp, a researcher and neurologist at The Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital).
“Here, we were able to extend these findings by studying the effects of a real-world stressor in a large sample. An important future direction will be to examine why some people are more sensitive than others to stress and to identify coping strategies that help to protect from the effects of stress.”
The new study appears in PLOS ONE. Funding came from a Canada Discovery Grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, Fonds de Recherche du Québec–Santé, and the G.W. Stairs Fund.