What is it about?

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, lockdowns have been imposed across the world. These lockdowns change our daily lives considerably. For example, lockdowns reduce our ability to socialize and in many cases, our ability to work. This study investigated how these changes to our daily lives may change the way we think. We compared two samples, one from before the first UK lockdown and one during the first UK lockdown. In each sample, we asked people what they were thinking about five times a day for seven days using their smartphones as they went about their daily lives. We compared people's thought patterns from these two samples to understand whether they were any significant differences in the way people were thinking before and during the lockdown, and how these changes related to changes in socializing and working. We found that, during the lockdown, when people were alone, social thinking (i.e., thoughts about other people) was reduced compared to pre-lockdown, but on the rare occasions when social interactions were possible during the lockdown, people reported more social thinking than before lockdown. So, in both samples, social thinking was reduced when alone and increased when interacting, but this difference was greater during lockdown so that people thought about other people less when they were alone, and thought about other people more when they were interacting. In addition, future-directed problem-solving was significantly reduced during lockdown compared to pre-lockdown. So, during the lockdown, people were not thinking about the future as much. However, during the lockdown, people did think about the future a lot when they were actively working. Therefore, the lockdown was associated with a reduction in future-directed problem solving, but this thought pattern was reinstated when individuals engaged in work. Our findings highlight how our thought patterns are shaped by the daily activities we engage in, both during lockdowns and in more normal times, and that big changes to our daily lives can lead to changes in the way we think.

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Why is it important?

These findings are important because they highlight important links between the things we do day-to-day and the ways we think. We know that the way people think is also related to the way they feel. So this work highlights the importance of understanding the relationships between activities and thoughts to ultimately have a better understanding of how what we do affects both the way we think and feel.


At the beginning of the UK lockdown, I thought it would be really important to try to document the influence this completely novel experience was having on the way we were thinking and feeling. I am really glad that we collected and analyzed this data, and I hope people find the work interesting, and that it helps inspire more work into how the world around us, and what we do, shapes the way we think and feel.

Bronte Mckeown
University of York

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: The impact of social isolation and changes in work patterns on ongoing thought during the first COVID-19 lockdown in the United Kingdom, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, October 2021, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2102565118.
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