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Memories of the pandemic are distorted and polarized

Memories of the pandemic are distorted and polarized

A team led by Philipp Springholz from the Institute of Psychology at the University of Bamberg (Germany) evaluated four surveys involving 10,800 people from eleven countries around the world including Austria. Around the first year of the pandemic (2020), people there indicated how at risk they felt and how justified they felt the measures were. When the strict measures against Covid-19 were lifted in most of these countries (at the beginning of 2023), people were again asked, among other things, how they assessed the risks of the disease and the measures taken at that time. The researchers compared evaluations during the pandemic period with subsequent recall. Robert Bohm from the Faculty of Psychology at the University of Vienna also participated in the study.

People’s memories were constantly distorted and in different directions depending on their vaccination status: Vaccinated people overestimated their risk of infection at the time and their trust in science, according to the researchers. However, unvaccinated people tend to underestimate the importance of both. Memories were sometimes improved when participants were paid money for particularly good memory skills. Therefore, according to the researchers, memory distortions are at least partly personally motivated and cannot be explained by mere forgetting alone.

“The results show that there are systematic differences in how people remember the pandemic, even though their assessments at the time did not differ much from each other,” says Luca Henkel from the University of Chicago (USA). A distorted perception of the past reinforces social polarization and hampers preparedness for future crises.

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The more people prioritize their vaccination status, the more unrealistic their memories become. As perception of risks was further reduced at the time, political measures were also seen as less appropriate. “Not surprisingly, these participants also indicated that they did not intend to follow regulations in future pandemics,” the researchers wrote. “It may be possible to reduce the identification of vaccinated and unvaccinated people by their vaccination status,” says Baum. “This could reduce the drive to distort memories in the first place and thus improve the treatment of the epidemic.”

In another study recently published in Nature Communications, Robert Bohm and colleagues also used the newly developed “Pandemic Fatigue Scale” to quantify the extent of disinterest that arises in staying informed and adhering to health protection recommendations during such a crisis. “Pandemics stress people more over time, making them less likely to follow public health recommendations,” the researchers wrote.

“Future research should show whether there are effective interventions that can prevent the onset of pandemic fatigue or can reduce it again after it occurs,” Baum told the APA. “Young people in particular will benefit from such measures because they are stronger when individuals “Older people are affected by pandemic fatigue.”

(Service – Internet – Study on Epidemiological Memory: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-023-06674-5Pandemic fatigue study: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-023-42063-2)