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Study Shows Negative Impact on Cognitive Performance

Man Trapped Mask

The researchers found that the decrease in cognitive performance was caused by the discomfort and annoyance of wearing masks rather than any physiological mechanism. However, participants were able to adapt to the distraction over time.

According to research from the University of Queensland, face masks can temporarily disrupt decision-making in certain situations.

New research from the University of Queensland demonstrates that wearing a face mask may temporarily impact decision-making in certain situations.

Dr. David Smerdon, from UQ’s School of Economics, conducted a study of nearly 3 million chess moves made by over 8,000 players in 18 countries, both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. The results showed that wearing a mask significantly lowered the average quality of players’ decisions.

“The decrease in performance was due to the annoyance caused by the masks rather than a physiological mechanism, but people adapted to the distraction over time,” Dr. Smerdon said.

“The data showed masks were more likely to decrease performance in situations where there was a demanding mental task with a high working memory load. This is something to keep in mind for occupations in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as well as other professions that demand a high level of working memory such as language interpreters, performers, waiters, and teachers.”

Dr. Smerdon, an Australian chess Grandmaster, said while mask mandates had helped to curb the spread of COVID-19, almost nothing was known about their impact on cognitive performance.

“At the moment there are no large studies on the impact of mask-wearing on the general population,” he said.

“Chess can provide us with that insight as it requires calculation, memory, problem-solving, and pattern recognition and has been used extensively in psychology, neuroscience, and economics to measure changes in cognitive performance.”

Dr. Smerdon’s study found that while mask-wearing had a negative impact on chess performance, the effect subsided after four to six hours of playing.

“The results suggest that the effect of masks may depend on the type of task, the duration of the task, and working memory load,” he said.

Dr. Smerdon said understanding the impact of mask-wearing on decision-making could help individuals and organizations better evaluate when and how to use them.

“For example, education policymakers may need to bear in mind the disruptive effects of masks when designing exam conditions to address concerns about student health and fairness,” he said.

Reference: “The effect of masks on cognitive performance” by David Smerdon, 28 November 2022, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2206528119

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