People who social distance may be more intelligent, study says

By Arianne Cohen

A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that people who comply with social distancing guidelines have better working memory capacity, which is an indicator of intelligence.

“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,” said WeiWei Zhang, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California at Riverside, in a release.

Working memory capacity measures how much information can be held in the mind for brief moments, and is strongly correlated with smarts, comprehension, and problem solving. “We propose that this [failure to social distance] may be associated with the limitation in one’s mental capacity to simultaneously retain multiple pieces of information in working memory,” write the authors, who say that people with more working memory have increased awareness of the benefits (versus the costs) of social distancing.

The research was carried out in late March on 850 participants, who filled out questionnaires on demographics and social distancing practices, and completed testing on personality and cognitive capacity. The correlation between working memory and social distancing behavior is so strong that individuals’ working memory predicts their social distancing behavior—even when controlling for education, moods, personality, and income levels.

Interestingly, the research highlights that social distancing is still an effortful decision that involves working memory, as opposed to a societal habit that does not depend on in-the-moment cognition.

The researchers’ aim was not to IQ-shame—quite the contrary. The aim is to identify why some people do not social distance, and to facilitate strategies to improve overall social distancing compliance. Zhang suggests that public campaigns should be “succinct, concise and brief” to avoid information overload.


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