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Do concerns about COVID-19 impair sustained attention?

, Yi Ni Toh, Caitlin A. Sisk, Roger W. Remington, Vanessa G. Lee

Abstract: The novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has considerably heightened health and financial concerns for many individuals. Similar concerns, such as those associated with poverty, impair performance on cognitive control tasks. If ongoing concerns about COVID-19 substantially increase the tendency to mind wander in tasks requiring sustained attention, these worries could degrade performance on a wide range of tasks, leading, for example, to increased traffic accidents, diminished educational achievement, and lower workplace productivity. In two pre-registered experiments, we investigated the degree to which young adults’ concerns about COVID-19 correlated with their ability to sustain attention. Experiment 1 tested mainly European participants during an early phase of the pandemic. After completing a survey probing COVID-related concerns, participants engaged in a continuous performance task (CPT) over two, 4-min blocks, during which they responded to city scenes that occurred 90% of the time and withheld responses to mountain scenes that occurred 10% of the time. Despite large and stable individual differences, performance on the scene CPT did not significantly correlate with the severity of COVID-related concerns obtained from the survey. Experiment 2 tested US participants during a later phase of the pandemic. Once again, CPT performance did not significantly correlate with COVID concerns expressed in a pre-task survey. However, participants who had more task-unrelated thoughts performed more poorly on the CPT. These findings suggest that although COVID-19 increased anxiety in a broad swath of society, young adults are able to hold these concerns in a latent format, minimizing their impact on performance in a demanding sustained attention task.
Keywords: Sustained attention / COVID-19 / Vigilance decrement / Mental health

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