Social distancing measures have been a key part of the Covid-19 response for most affected countries around the world. When followed, they've been proven to help slow the spread of the disease quite effectively.
If you have ventured out of the house, you've probably come across quite a few people who haven't complied with the measures, for example, keeping a 2-meter distance (cough joggers cough). A new study has looked at why it may be more difficult for some people to comply with the new rules than others.
The paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at the early stages of the pandemic in the US, from March 13 to March 25, 2020, just after it was declared a national emergency. Participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire designed to assess their mood, anxiety levels, and compliance with social distancing measures. They were also assessed on their intelligence and their understanding of the costs and benefits of social distancing.
The team found that whether you decided to comply with social distancing in the early stages of the pandemic comes down to how much working memory you can hold. Working memory is the psychological process of holding information in your mind for a brief period while performing mental operations on that information, such as making decisions. People with lower working memory capacity were less likely to comply with the measures, and less likely to be aware of the benefits of social distancing itself.
"The higher the working memory capacity, the more likely that social distancing behaviors will follow," senior author Weiwei Zhang, associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, said in a statement. The relationship held even after they controlled for relevant psychological and socioeconomic factors, including anxiety levels, personality traits, education, and income.
"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," Zhang added. "This decisional process can be less effortful for people with larger working memory capacity, potentially leading to more social distancing behaviors."
This behavior reflected people's concerns for the inherent costs of social distancing while discounting its benefits. In the study, the researchers propose this may be associated with the limitation of a person's mental capacity to "simultaneously retain multiple pieces of information in working memory for rational decision making that leads to social-distancing compliance."
The team suggests that policymakers should take into account the less cognitively able when making social rules, as well as creating information materials that don't overwhelm people with lower intelligence and working memory. Because social distance measures is not considered the norm yet in countries such as the US, the researchers point out for some, the decision to follow social distancing rules and wear a mask may be mentally effortful.
"Consequently, we will all have to deliberately make the effort to overcome our tendency to avoid effortful decisions, such as to not practice social distancing," Zhang said, adding that policymakers will also "need to consider individuals' general cognitive abilities when promoting compliance behaviors such as wearing a mask or engaging in physical distancing."
"The message in such materials should be succinct, concise, and brief. Make the decision process easy for people."