People Who Social Distance Are More Intelligent, Study Says

by : Julia Banim on : 29 Jul 2020 11:20
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In bad news for Karens everywhere, people who comply with social distancing measures have been found to have better working memory capacities – one of the key indicators of human intelligence.


A new research paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences addressed whether choosing to social distance during the early stages of the pandemic could in fact depend upon how much information a person’s working memory could contain.

Those with a higher working memory capacity were found to have an increased understanding of the benefits of social distancing over the costs. As a result, they demonstrated greater compliance during the initial stages of the outbreak.

Face Masks Are Breaking Facial Recognition Algorithms, Study FindsFace Masks Are Breaking Facial Recognition Algorithms, Study FindsPA Images

Working memory refers to the process of retaining information in the brain for a short amount of time, a period that usually lasts for a matter of seconds. How good a person is at doing this is indicative of their prowess in various mental abilities, such as intelligence, comprehension, and learning.


This research was conducted in March. A total of 850 participants completed questionnaires on demographics and social distancing practices, while completing personality and cognitive capacity tests.

The correlation between working memory capacity and social distancing practices was found to be so very strong that working memory could accurately predict how a person would behave when it came to social distancing.

This was found to be true even when taking into account factors such as education, mood, personality, and levels of income.

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This research shows social distancing behaviour to be an effortful decision involving working memory, rather than a societal habit.

Widespread noncompliance continues to be an issue in the US, where social distancing measures are mostly voluntary. Levels of noncompliance were observed to be especially high during the initial stages of pandemic.

It’s believed that one reason for this could be concerns about potential socioeconomic costs. However, what constitutes an individual’s ability to decide how they will comply with guidelines is still mostly unclear.

Co-author Weiwei Zhang, who is an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, said:


Individual differences in working memory capacity can predict social distancing compliance just as well as some social factors such as personality traits.

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.

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It’s expected that the need for a good working memory will fall over time, as mask-wearing and social distancing become new social norms.

Zhang continued:

The bottom line is we should not rely on habitual behaviors since social distancing is not yet adequately established in U.S. society.

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.

Consequently, we will have to deliberately make the effort to overcome our tendency to avoid effortful decisions, such as to not practice social distancing.

The aim of this research was to identify exactly why some individuals choose not to social distance, and to facilitate strategies that could improve levels of compliance and, ultimately, public health.

Going forward, the team will analyse data collected from the US, China, and South Korea to examine protective social and mental factors which are helping people to cope with the ongoing pandemic.

It’s okay to not panic about everything going on in the world right now. LADbible and UNILAD’s aim with our campaign, Cutting Through, is to provide our community with facts and stories from the people who are either qualified to comment or have experienced first-hand the situation we’re facing. For more information from the World Health Organization, click here.

Julia Banim

Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.

Topics: Science, Coronavirus, Intelligence, Now, Social Distancing, Social Distancing Behaviour, Working Memory Capacity


PNAS and 1 other
  1. PNAS

    Working memory capacity predicts individual differences in social-distancing compliance during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States


    Couldn't socially distance? Blame your working memory