Despite what seems like almost every medical professional in the world telling people to continue to social distance (even when it doesn’t really make any sense), a rather large chunk of folks are just bound and determined to not do it (or wear a mask).
Turns out, there could be a reason for that.
According to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the reason so many people refuse to properly follow social distancing protocols is because, and I am paraphrasing here, they’re idiots.
Okay, okay, that’s not exactly how the researchers put it. What they actually discovered is that people with a higher working memory capacity are more likely to social distance.
So… what the hell is higher working memory?
Fast Company describes working memory as “an indicator of intelligence” and a measurement of “how much information can be held in the mind for brief moments, and is strongly correlated with smarts, comprehension, and problem solving.”
See? I wasn’t that far off.
“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,” the authors of the study wrote.
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 higher the working memory capacity, the more likely that social distancing behaviors will follow,” said lead author WeiWei Zhang, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California at Riverside.
“Individual differences in working memory capacity can predict social distancing compliance just as well as some social factors such as personality traits,” Zhang continued. “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.”
“Before social distancing becomes a habit and a well-adopted social norm, the decision to follow social distancing and wearing masks would be mentally effortful,” Zhang said. “Consequently, we will have to deliberately make the effort to overcome our tendency to avoid effortful decisions, such as to not practice social distancing.”
In other words, as Zhang added, “Make the decision process easy for people.”
Ah, yes, the old K.I.S.S. principle. Never fails.