Lockdown stress has led many to make poorer choices, act recklessly

BARCELONA, Spain — All the lockdowns over the past year have been rough, even for the most habitual of homebodies. Interestingly, though, a recent study finds lockdowns have impacted many people in an unexpected way. Spanish researchers report the shock and stress of lockdowns have had negative effects on both the cognitive capacity and the mental health of various populations.

It makes sense that lockdown is difficult from a mental health perspective, but lower cognitive capacity? Researchers say lockdown has led to diminished decision-making skills, poorer choices, and generally more recklessness. Additionally, many began showing an increased tendency to be less altruistic and more of a desire to punish others. Not exactly ideal during a global pandemic.

Close to 5,000 people living in either Spain, the United Kingdom, or Italy took part in this study. Each person responded to a series of surveys sent out during the first and second lockdowns in each country. The first survey asked how the pandemic had influenced respondents across four categories: career, mental health, stress, and physical health. The second dived into more cognitive matters, enquiring about risk-taking tendencies, decision-making, altruism, and reciprocity.

“We wanted to explore the impact of lockdown and other COVID-19-related restrictions on people’s lives and how this affected their decision-making,” explains Francisco Lupiáñez, professor of Information and Communication Sciences at the Open University of Catalonia, in a university release.

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Researchers say people who are “more exposed to the consequences of the effects of lockdown” usually show greater cognitive declines. They also make riskier choices and display “reduced civic-mindedness.”

“People’s impaired decision-making abilities were impaired, and their reactions were not those we might have expected,” Lupiáñez adds. “Instead of being more careful because they were in a pandemic, they were taking risks, because they couldn’t take it any more. They wanted, for example, those who did not wear masks or evaded restrictions to be punished, even though they themselves were more likely to make riskier choices.”

“Very difficult choices were made without taking into account the social cost involved. They only took into account a single, short-term perspective. And now we know that four out of ten people were at risk of suffering a mental health-related illness as a result of the shock produced by this pandemic. All this will have implications in the medium term,” the study author adds.

The stress of the pandemic and lockdowns has reportedly led many to pursue instant gratification and make snap-decisions. Some respondents reported moving from urban areas to rural regions after only considering the move for a short time.

“These were decisions in which the cost-benefit assessment was highly conditioned by the pandemic. It seemed as if the world was coming to an end and people preferred to benefit today, immediately, without thinking about tomorrow,” Lupiáñez concludes.

The study is published in Scientific Reports.