COVID Brain Strikes Again: Student Decision-Making Skills Take a Hit

According to new research conducted by The Ohio State University, the COVID-19 pandemic likely had a negative impact on the decision-making abilities of university students, including those graduating this spring.

The study compared the decision-making consistency of students during the autumn semester of 2020 to that of students in previous years and found that the 2020 students were less consistent in their decision making. The researchers theorised that the stress caused by the pandemic limited the students’ resources for evaluating information effectively.

Lead author Melissa Buelow, a professor of psychology at Ohio State’s Newark campus, explained that the uncertainties brought about by the global lockdown affected the brain region responsible for problem-solving and decision making. The study suggests that the everyday stresses of life can overwhelm cognitive resources, leading to difficulties in activities that require energy and effort. This may explain why students had difficulty attending lectures, concentrating, and completing tasks during the pandemic.

The study involved students attending classes both virtually and in person, following COVID-19 safety protocols such as physical distancing and wearing masks. The researchers used the Adult Decision Making Competence (ADMC) scale to assess the decision-making abilities of the participants. They found that students in 2020 were more likely to answer differently depending on how the scenarios were framed, indicating a reliance on whether the situation was perceived as a gain or a loss.

Interestingly, despite the inconsistency in decision making, the students in 2020 were still confident in the accuracy of their decisions for questions based on factual information. This raises questions about individuals’ awareness of their knowledge and potential implications for their health and well-being.

A follow-up analysis during the spring 2022 semester with a smaller sample of students showed that decision making remained less consistent compared to pre-pandemic participants, even with vaccination and relaxed mask and distancing requirements.

The researchers are continuing to collect data to track changes in student decision making over a longer period of time. The study highlights the impact of situational factors, such as the pandemic, on decision making and the importance of understanding this context.

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