Corona pandemic: Distorted memories

People wearing masks at an Italian market.

Depending on identification with vaccination status, both groups have polarised perceptions of the past.

11/02/2023 · HP-Topnews · Bernhard-Nocht-Institut für Tropenmedizin · Lebenswissenschaften · Forschungsergebnis

In the renowned scientific journal Nature, an international team of scientists from Germany, Austria and the USA shows how social polarisation distorts the memory of the corona pandemic and thus makes it more difficult to prepare for future crises.

In several comprehensive studies, a research team from Bamberg, Chicago, Erfurt/Hamburg and Vienna investigated how perceptions and behaviours during the pandemic could shape future attitudes and how memories of feelings during the pandemic may be distorted by perceptions of the current situation. The study participants were interviewed in the first year of the pandemic, 2020, and then again around the turn of the year 2022/23. "In the second interview, they were also asked to recall their perceptions and behaviours during the first year of the pandemic. This made it possible to compare their memories with the answers they actually gave," explains one of the first authors, Philipp Sprengholz from the University of Bamberg.

By means of several studies with more than 10,000 respondents from a total of 10 countries, the researchers were able to determine the extent to which memories of one's own statements from the past were dependent on current perceptions and behaviour. The researchers were particularly interested in how different attitudes influence the distortion of memories. To do this, they looked at whether the respondents had been vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2 or not. The surprising result: depending on how much the vaccinated or unvaccinated identify with their vaccination status, the memories are distorted in different directions.

For example, vaccinated people overestimated their perceived risk of infection at the time and their trust in science, while unvaccinated people tended to underestimate both in retrospect. Since the memories partly improved when the respondents received money for particularly accurate memories, the scientists conclude that the memory distortions are at least partly motivated and cannot be explained by mere forgetting.

Desire to dismantle the political system

Furthermore, the study results showed that when there was a greater underestimation of risk perceptions, protective behaviour and trust in government and science at the time, political measures were retrospectively perceived as less appropriate. More negative evaluations of policy actions during the pandemic are also associated with a stronger desire to punish politicians and scientists for their actions during the pandemic and to dismantle the entire political order, according to the study. Unsurprisingly, these respondents also indicated that they do not intend to follow regulations in future pandemics. Overall, these intentions varied across countries.

Distorted memories make it difficult to prepare for coming crises

"The results show that there are systematic differences in how people remember the pandemic, even though their assessments at the time often did not differ that much," said the second lead author Luca Henkel from the University of Chicago, summarising the findings. The distorted memory leads to a polarised perception of the past, which has the potential to perpetuate current and future social polarisation and hamper preparation for coming crises.

Cornelia Betsch from the University of Erfurt and the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine Hamburg adds: "In the future, we need to look beyond the short-term effects of political measures to contain pandemics and also consider long-term consequences for social cohesion"

Further studies will now examine how the distortion of memories and social polarisation influence each other over the course and how these dynamics vary in different countries. Other crises, such as the climate crisis, will also be looked at. "We also want to explore ways to reduce polarisation. It may be possible to reduce the identification of vaccinated and unvaccinated people with their vaccination status. This could reduce the motivation to distort memories in the first place and thus improve the process of coming to terms with the pandemic," adds psychologist Robert Böhm from the University of Vienna.

Original publication

Philipp Sprengholz, Luca Henkel, Robert Böhm, Cornelia Betsch: Historical narratives about the COVID-19 pandemic are motivationally biased. Nature.

Further information and contact

Presse release - Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine (BNITM)