Memory power helps to drive people’s social distancing and mask wearing compliance, American researchers have said.

The team from the University of California have found that individuals with higher working memory capacity have more of an awareness of the benefits of social distancing and, therefore were more likely to do it.

Working memory is the name given to the psychological process which involves holding information in the mind for a brief period of time, normally just a few seconds.

Lead author and associate professor of psychology Weiwei Zhang said: “The higher the working memory capacity, the more likely that social distancing behaviours will follow.

“Interestingly, this relationship holds even after we statistically control for relevant psychological and socioeconomic factors such as depressed and anxious moods, personality traits, education, intelligence, and income.”

The study involved 850 people and the data was collected during the early days of lockdown between March 13 and March 25 in America.

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The participants were asked to complete a demographic survey, as well as answer questions about whether they were following social distancing measures and how they were feeling at the time.

Professor Zhang said: “The bottom line is we should not rely on habitual behaviours since social distancing is not yet adequately established in US 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.

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“Eventually social distancing and wearing face masks will become a habitual behaviour and their relationship with working memory will diminish.”

At the moment social distancing in America is mostly voluntary and in the UK people are advised to stay 2m (6ft) apart, but in situations where that is not possible, they must try to remain 1m (3ft) apart with extra precautions such as face coverings and not sitting face-to-face.

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The study findings have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences publication.

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