Pandemic Worriers Shown to Have Impaired General Cognitive Abilities

Summary: Researchers say the COVID pandemic has had an impact on people’s cognitive abilities and risk perception.

Source: McGill University

The COVID-19 pandemic has tested our psychological limits. Some have been more affected than others by the stress of potential illness and the confusion of constantly changing health information and new restrictions. A new study finds the pandemic may have also impaired people’s cognitive abilities and altered risk perception, at a time when making the right health choices is critically important.

Scientists at McGill University and The Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital) surveyed more than 1,500 Americans online from April to June, 2020. Participants were asked 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 data were then compared 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 percent chance of winning $0 and a 75 percent 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.

This is a diagram from the study
An example of the cognitive testing. Credit: Kevin Da Silva-Castanheira

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 Kevin da Silva Castanheira, a graduate student in McGill’s Department of Psychology and the study’s first author.

“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 Dr. Madeleine Sharp, a researcher and neurologist at The Neuro and study author.

“Here, 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.”

About this cognition research news

Author: Press Office
Source: McGill University
Contact: Press Office – McGill University
Image: The image is credited to Kevin Da Silva-Castanheira

Original Research: Open access.
The impact of pandemic-related worry on cognitive functioning and risk-taking” by Kevin da Silva Castanheira et al. PLOS ONE


The impact of pandemic-related worry on cognitive functioning and risk-taking

Here, we sought to quantify the effects of experienced fear and worry, engendered by the COVID-19 pandemic, on both cognitive abilities—speed of information processing, task-set shifting, and proactive control—as well as economic risk-taking.

Leveraging a repeated-measures cross-sectional design, we examined the performance of 1517 participants, collected during the early phase of the pandemic in the US (April–June 2020), finding that self-reported pandemic-related worry predicted deficits in information processing speed and maintenance of goal-related contextual information. In a classic economic risk-taking task, we observed that worried individuals’ choices were more sensitive to the described outcome probabilities of risky actions.

Overall, these results elucidate the cognitive consequences of a large-scale, unpredictable, and uncontrollable stressor, which may in turn play an important role in individuals’ understanding of, and adherence to safety directives both in the current crisis and future public health emergencies.

Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.