Decision-making capabilities of college students- negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic

Evidence of ‘pandemic brain’ in college students.

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, healthy individuals reported daily difficulties in thinking combined with overall mental fogginess. Social media and mainstream press labeled this phenomenon “pandemic brain” or “COVID-brain.”

A new study by the Ohio State University now offered one more impact of this pandemic brain. It suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected the decision-making capabilities of college students.

The students were found to be less consistent in their decision-making during the 2020 fall semester than students who had participated in similar research over several previous years.

The researchers contrasted responses from students in previous studies to hypothetical situations with those from students during the pandemic. They discovered evidence that, depending on how the situation was presented, students in 2020 were more likely to cycle between following their instincts and carefully considering their responses.

Why did this happen?

It is due to the prolonged and wide-ranging uncertainties that came with the global lockdown that affected the brain region responsible for problem-solving and decision-making.

Lead author Melissa Buelow, professor of psychology at Ohio State’s Newark campus, said, “Our theory is that feeling stressed by everything going on was limiting students’ resources to really evaluate the information that was presented to them.”

“I think that is one of the more important findings – that the stresses of everyday life can wax and wane, and they can potentially overwhelm your cognitive resources, and you can see real downstream effects on everyday activities that require your energy and effort. This study provides additional information to understand why students may have been having difficulty coming to class, focusing on class, and getting things turned in – because this global event affected every part of their lives.”

For this study, researchers compared data from a pre-pandemic sample of 722 undergraduate students to 161 undergraduates recruited in Fall 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. The score was reached on the Adult Decision Making Competence scale among participants who completed the task pre-pandemic or across two-time points in Fall 2020, during the pandemic.

The key finding: Students in 2020 were more likely to respond differently depending on how the information was framed rather than realizing that ethically based scenarios resulted in the same outcome, whether given as a gain or loss.

Despite this discrepancy, the researchers found that students in 2020 had the same confidence level in their answers to accuracy-based questions as participants before the epidemic.

Buelow said, “That struck us as interesting, with potential implications for the health and well-being of individuals adequately perceiving risk. Are individuals aware of what they do and don’t know? And if you aren’t, does that lead to more risk?”

To see whether COVID-19 immunization and eased mask and distance regulations lessened the pandemic’s effects on decision-making, the researchers conducted two assessments of additional 72 students during the spring 2022 semester. With this reduced sample, their exploratory analysis discovered that students still made fewer consistent decisions than pre-pandemic individuals.

Journal Reference:

  1. Melissa Buelow, James Wirth, et al. Poorer decision making among college students during the COVID-19 pandemic: Evidence for “pandemic-brain.” Journal of American College Health. DOI: 10.1080/07448481.2023.2186129
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