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Pandemic-related worries diminish cognitive skills

According to a new study led by McGill University and the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (The Neuro), pandemic-related worries have a negative impact on cognitive abilities and can significantly alter risk perception, at a time when making the right health choices is critically important.

Researchers surveyed over 1,500 Americans online from April to June, 2020 and asked them to rate their level of worry about the COVID-19 pandemic and, afterwards, to complete a set of psychological tests to measure their basic cognitive abilities, such as processing and remembering information. The results were compared with similar data collected before the pandemic.

The scientists found that participants who experienced more pandemic-related worry had reduced information processing speed and capacity to retain information needed in order to perform specific tasks, as well as lower ability to maintain goals in mind. Overall, they performed more poorly on simple cognitive tasks than participants from the pre-pandemic group.

Furthermore, the study results suggest that pandemic-related worries increased people’s tendency to distort described risk levels, such as underweighting likely probabilities and overweighting unlikely probabilities. Thus, worries can significantly affect people’s decision-making capacity, often causing them to take wrong decisions (such as not to get vaccinated, for instance).

“The basic cognitive abilities measured here are crucial for healthy daily living and decision-making,” explained study lead author Kevin da Silva Castanheira, a graduate student in Psychology at McGill.

“The impairments associated with worry observed here suggest that under periods of high stress, like a 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 laboratory settings,” added study co-author Dr. Madeleine Sharp, a researcher and neurologist at The Neuro.

“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 study is published in the journal PLoS One.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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