Partial recall: Personal beliefs may skew pandemic memories, deepen polarization

Partial recall

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Personal motivations color people's memories of the COVID-19 pandemic, biasing their assessment of past political actions and complicating emergency-preparedness planning, suggests an analysis of four empirical studies.

For the review, published last week in Nature, a team led by researchers from the University of Bamberg in Germany and the University of Chicago evaluated the results of surveys of 10,776 vaccinated and unvaccinated German and Austrian adults about pandemic-related risk perceptions, protective behaviors, and trust in government and science.

Participants were surveyed in 2020 or early 2021 and again in late 2022 or 2023, when they were also asked to recollect their 2020 or 2021 perceptions and behaviors and offered monetary incentives for greater recall. The researchers then generalized the results to 10 countries, again parsing data from vaccinated and unvaccinated participants.

The 10 countries were Australia, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

"Beyond simple forgetting, recall and ex-post evaluation are prone to various forms of bias, reflecting differences in motivation and purpose (for example, a wish to conform with one's own or the prevailing opinion)," the study authors wrote. "For instance, people are more likely to remember true or false information from the past depending on pre-existing beliefs or previous behaviours in the context of vaccination, political campaigns, or political riots."

Not 'merely people forgetting the past'

Both vaccinated and unvaccinated respondents remembered their 2020 or 2021 answers inaccurately but in opposite ways. For example, vaccinated participants tended to overestimate their past risk perceptions and trust in science, while unvaccinated respondents underestimated them. The more strongly respondents identified with their vaccination status, the greater distortion in their recall.

"Because the magnitudes of these effects partly decreased when participants were offered money as an incentive for accurate recall, the distortions seem to be motivated by vaccination-related attitudes, and cannot be explained merely by people forgetting the past," the researchers wrote.

Underestimating past risks, behaviors, and trust was related to beliefs about the appropriateness of past political actions and tied to a desire to punish politicians and scientists for their pandemic responses and even to dismantle the political order altogether.

Because the magnitudes of these effects partly decreased when participants were offered money as an incentive for accurate recall, the distortions seem to be motivated by vaccination-related attitudes.

"It was also linked with being less inclined to vote and to comply with future pandemic regulations," the investigators noted. "Appropriateness ratings were also more extreme the more strongly participants identified with their vaccination status."

In the 10-country study, most respondents in all countries overestimated the odds of infection (from 65% in the United Kingdom to 92% in Italy), while most participants in all countries but Japan (24%) and Mexico (42%) underestimated the severity of COVID-19 in 2020 (from 74% in Spain to 97% in the United Kingdom).

Bias related to government-action effectiveness varied by country (from 31% in Italy to 81% in Japan) and by perceptions of COVID-19 severity. "For instance, in some countries, estimating COVID-19 as more severe than it had actually been perceived in the past by a representative country sample was associated with the evaluation of political action as more appropriate (r, 0.11 in Australia, 0.13 in Spain, 0.19 in South Korea, and 0.21 in Sweden).

Application to other contexts

The investigators said the findings show the influence of pride in being vaccinated or unvaccinated on recall, which they fear could lead to sustained societal polarization on pandemic issues and interfere with preparedness planning for future crises.

"Future political responses must consider the long-term consequences for societal cohesion and trust, as well as the immediate public-health implications," they wrote.

The researchers called for studies to confirm how polarization and recall influence each other over time, evaluate between-country differences, and determine whether people with a stronger tendency for biased recall of the pandemic might have had better psychologic function during the crisis.

"Yet, catastrophic events typically require a rapid response, and this works best when people can agree on a way forward," they wrote. "It follows that diverging representations of the past might impede effective future action, and it would be useful to investigate this problem in other crisis contexts, such as climate change."

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