COVID-19-Related Stress Associated With Poorer Cognitive Ability, Risk-Taking Behavior

Study indicates those who experienced a greater amount of stress from the COVID-19 pandemic had reduced information processing speed.

Stress from the COVID-19 pandemic may have had a negative impact on cognitive abilities and risk perception among the general public, according to a study published in PLoS ONE.

“The impact of stress and of worry on cognitive function are well known, but are typically studied in the laboratory setting,” says Madeleine Sharp, MD, researcher and neurologist at The Neuro, in a press release. “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.”

The investigators surveyed more than 1500 Americans between April and June 2020. To conduct the study, participants were asked to rate their level of worry about the COVID-19 pandemic before completing a set of psychological tests measuring basic cognitive ability and risk assessment.

For example, participants completed an information processing test in which they were asked to match pairs of digits and symbols according to a fixed rule. For the assessment of risk attitudes, participants were asked to make a series of hypothetical economic choices between certain options and risky options. These data were then compared to results from the same tests given before the start of the pandemic.

According to the investigators, those who experienced a greater amount of stress from the pandemic had reduced information processing speed, decreased information retention, and a heightened sensitivity to the odds given when taking risks. The pandemic group performed more poorly overall on the simple cognitive tasks compared to the pre-pandemic group.

Further, participants in the last wave of data collection demonstrated slower processing speed, lower ability to keep goals in mind, and higher risk sensitivity than those in the first wave.

The study results also suggest that pandemic worry could be an effective predictor of a participant’s tendency to distort described levels of risk, underweighting likely probabilities and overweighting unlikely probabilities. The investigators said this demonstrates that worries relating to COVID-19 have affected decision-making styles, which could potentially influence decisions about getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

“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, in the release. “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.”


Pandemic worriers shown to have impaired general cognitive abilities [news release]. EurekAlert; December 1, 2021. Accessed December 8, 2021.