Did COVID make us stupider?

That is the potential finding of this study. Let me just pull-quote their abstract for you:

Studies examining the effect of social isolation on cognitive function typically involve older adults and/or specialist groups (e.g., expeditions). We considered the effects of COVID‐19‐induced social isolation on cognitive function within a representative sample of the general population. We additionally considered how participants ‘shielding’ due to underlying health complications, or living alone, performed. We predicted that performance would be poorest under strictest, most‐isolating conditions. At five timepoints over 13 weeks, participants (N = 342; aged 18–72 years) completed online tasks measuring attention, memory, decision‐making, time‐estimation, and learning. Participants indicated their mood as ‘lockdown’ was eased. Performance typically improved as opportunities for social contact increased. Interactions between participant sub‐groups and timepoint demonstrated that performance was shaped by individuals’ social isolation levels. Social isolation is linked to cognitive decline in the absence of ageing covariates. The impact of social isolation on cognitive function should be considered when implementing prolonged pandemic‐related restrictive conditions.

Now, some of this is kinda outdated at this point, because I think in general the “lockdown” periods are over in most places (not all, but most). I live in Texas, and honestly I never felt “locked down” except for maybe the first 2–3 weeks in March/April 2020. There were open-air bars and stuff open near me by mid-April, and I would go to them periodically and just try to create distance with other people while also talking to them. Even though we’re talking about saccharine, bullshit social interaction, it still felt like … I’d rather do that than sit at home all day and potentially be bored once work was completed. (My work, generally speaking, is not hard or time-consuming.)

So, I’m not sure we’re at a place immediately where we need to worry about lockdowns again, although all this could happen in six years and be worse, so it’s something we should think about.

Now, did COVID make us stupider? You cannot answer that question in the aggregate, because some people will come out of this and thrive in the sense of new approaches to life, new approaches to health, new businesses, new relationships, etc. Some will come out pretty piss poor. Intelligence is highly variable by individual (I am sure you’ve observed that a few times), and I don’t think we could blanket say “Yes, COVID made us dumber.”

But since this research is predominantly about the lockdown aspect of COVID, it becomes an interesting launch pad for discussions about return to work models. Right now the jam everyone is chasing is hybrid, which is a mix of in-office and remote (for white-collar workers — it’s important to remember that the majority of the workforce can’t really just not show up to a physical location because they work in service or retail or whatever).

There are about 97,382 articles published on hybrid work everyday now. I’ve written about five to 10 of them. It’s all mostly bullshit, because every company and its people are different. Some will be able to do it; some won’t. That’s life. And some managerial teams and executive teams desperately value control, and in-person seat time is control, so if you work at a place like that, good luck making hybrid pop. It will be dead by October 1, if not sooner.

But if this lack of social interaction is making us dumber, and we know Zoom Fatigue is a real concept that also gets written about 101,786 times per day … then why are we considering hybrid at all? Along those prisms, it’s the worst of both worlds. I know a lot of employees want more flexibility, and in that way, I think hybrid is the go-to. But that just means more over-scheduled video calls and a general decline in cognitive function? Maybe we should be spending 3–4 days in the office and chasing 4 x 10 models, as opposed to weird hybrid plans with “Red Teams” and “Green Teams.”

In case you’re interested in more: my general take on the “tea” around hybrid work and “the workforce reckoning about to come.”

Your takes on whether we’re stupider, and what that means for remote work going forward?

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