Delay discounting and under-valuing of recent information predict poorer adherence to social distancing measures during the COVID-19 pandemic

Alex Lloyd, Ryan McKay, Todd Hartman, Benjamin T. Vincent, Jamie Murphy, Jilly Gibson Miller, Liat Levita, Kate M Bennett, Orla McBride, Anton P Martinez, Thomas VA Stocks, Frédérique Vallières, Philip Hyland, Thanos Karatzias, Sarah Butter, M Shevlin, Richard Bentall, Liam Mason

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)
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The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about unprecedented global changes in individual and collective behaviour. To reduce the spread of the virus, public health bodies have promoted social distancing measures while attempting to mitigate their mental health consequences. The current study aimed to identify cognitive predictors of social distancing adherence and mental health symptoms, using computational models derived from delay discounting (the preference for smaller, immediate rewards over larger, delayed rewards) and patch foraging (the ability to trade-off between exploiting a known resource and exploring an unknown one). In a representative sample of the UK population (N=442), we find that steeper delay discounting predicted poorer adherence to social distancing measures and greater sensitivity to reward magnitude during delay discounting predicted higher levels of anxiety symptoms. Furthermore, under-valuing recently sampled information during foraging independently predicted greater violation of lockdown guidance. Our results suggest that those who show greater discounting of delayed rewards struggle to maintain social distancing. Further, those who adapt faster to new information are better equipped to change their behaviour in response to public health measures. These findings can inform interventions that seek to increase compliance with social distancing measures whilst minimising negative repercussions for mental health.
Original languageEnglish
Article number19237
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Early online date28 Sept 2021
Publication statusPublished online - 28 Sept 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The research was supported by the ESRC under grant number ES/V004379/1 and awarded to RPB, TKH, LL, JG-M, MS, JM, OM, KB and LM. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s).


  • covid-19
  • behaviour
  • social distancing
  • Public Health
  • Anxiety/epidemiology
  • Pandemics
  • Humans
  • Male
  • United Kingdom
  • Mental Health
  • Communicable Disease Control
  • COVID-19/psychology
  • Physical Distancing
  • Guideline Adherence
  • Motivation
  • Female
  • Delay Discounting


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