Coronavirus: Compliance with social distancing during early stages linked to working memory, study finds

The researchers surveyed 850 US residents between March 13 and March 25

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences claims compliance in America with social distancing during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic is linked to working memory.

The study, “Working memory capacity predicts individual differences in social-distancing compliance during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States,” assessed the working memory, personality, mood and fluid intelligence of test subjects; the researchers surveyed 850 U.S. residents between March 13 and March 25.

The study found a link between working memory and social distancing, and subjects -- noting more benefits than costs -- with higher levels of fluid intelligence, fairness and agreeableness followed the new rules of social distancing compliance, the study found.

“The decision of whether or not to follow social distancing guidelines is a difficult one, especially when there is a conflict between the societal benefits (e.g., prevent straining public health resources) and personal costs (e.g., loss in social connection and financial challenges). This decision critically relies on our mental capacity in retaining multiple pieces of potentially conflicting information in our head, which is referred to as working memory capacity,” study author Weizhen Xie (Zane) told PsyPost.


The World Health Organization (WHO), which declared the novel coronavirus SARS‐CoV‐2 to be a global pandemic on March 11, said Sunday the United States again topped the list among countries over a 24-hour period of confirmed coronavirus cases, with more than 66,000 cases recorded. Overall, the United Nations health agency has counted more than 12.5 million confirmed cases globally and more than 561,000 deaths from COVID-19.

“As a researcher in cognitive psychology, I feel that it is our duty to figure out why some people follow the developing norm of social distancing while others ignore it. Addressing this issue may help mitigate the current public health crisis due to the COVID-19,” Xie, a postdoctoral research fellow at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, added.

Xie said: “Realizing this cognitive bottleneck, the bottom line is that we should not rely on people’s habitual following of a norm because social distancing is not yet adequately established in U.S. society. Policymakers should develop strategies to aid people’s decision by making information or debriefing materials succinct, concise and brief.”