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Researchers study effect of COVID-19 lockdowns on people’s thoughts

Researchers study effect of COVID-19 lockdowns on people's thoughts-Milenio Stadium-Canada
The COVID-19 lockdowns drastically altered people’s behaviour, and that led to a change in their thought patterns, according to a new study co-authored by researchers at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. (John Last/CBC)

There’s no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic has been weighing heavily on many people’s minds, but now researchers at Queen’s University have a better idea of exactly how it’s been doing that.

Researchers at the Kingston, Ont., university sent text messages to two groups of people under lockdown in the United Kingdom — young adults roughly between the ages of 20 to 35, and older folks 55 and up — and asked them what they were thinking about.

They then looked at the nature of the responses and compared them to a similar dataset gathered before the pandemic.

It turned out the lockdown significantly altered the frequency and nature of certain thoughts, particularly when it came to how often people were thinking about others, said Jonathan Smallwood, a psychology professor at Queen’s and the co-lead on the study.

“Broadly speaking, [thought] patterns of social cognition — and also goal-directed, future thinking — seemed to be repressed during COVID,” Smallwood told CBC Radio’s All In A Day.

“One of the main reasons that happened was the changes in people’s routines.”

‘Strong bias’ toward thinking of others

When the participants were alone — a common happenstance during COVID-19 — they turned their minds to others less than they would have in similar circumstances pre-pandemic, the researchers found.

But after the rare occasions they were able to socialize, either online or in person, their texts revealed they’d be thinking about other human beings more frequently than the pre-pandemic data.

The fact participants so readily shifted their thought patterns after seeing someone suggests people have “a really strong bias” toward thinking about others, Smallwood said.

Understanding the connection between a person’s actions and their resulting thoughts, he added, will help “build quite a multi-dimensional picture of a person.”

That could be of benefit when it comes to better understanding and treating mental health conditions, Smallwood said, as there’s evidence that certain disorders like social anxiety or agoraphobia are connected to changes in people’s activities.

“This will help build a very inclusive model of [the] different ways that a person’s behaviour and their thinking can contribute to their well-being,” said Smallwood.

“We’re quite excited about that, moving forward, as a way for understanding mental health in a much more idiosyncratic manner than is sometimes possible.”

The study is the “first to actually document the systematic changes that have occurred in thinking patterns during this unprecedented time,” said study co-author Giulia Poerio, a lecturer with the psychology department at the University of Essex, in a statement.

The study’s findings have been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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