Do concerns about COVID-19 impair sustained attention?

Jihyang Jun, Yi Ni Toh, Caitlin Sisk, Roger W Remington, Vanessa G. Lee

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


The novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has considerably heightened health and financial concerns for many individuals. Similar concerns, such as those associated with poverty, impair performance on cognitive control tasks. If ongoing concerns about COVID-19 substantially increase the tendency to mind wander in tasks requiring sustained attention, these worries could degrade performance on a wide range of tasks, leading, for example, to increased traffic accidents, diminished educational achievement, and lower workplace productivity. In two pre-registered experiments, we investigated the degree to which young adults’ concerns about COVID-19 correlated with their ability to sustain attention. Experiment 1 tested mainly European participants during an early phase of the pandemic. After completing a survey probing COVID-related concerns, participants engaged in a continuous performance task (CPT) over two, 4-min blocks, during which they responded to city scenes that occurred 90% of the time and withheld responses to mountain scenes that occurred 10% of the time. Despite large and stable individual differences, performance on the scene CPT did not significantly correlate with the severity of COVID-related concerns obtained from the survey. Experiment 2 tested US participants during a later phase of the pandemic. Once again, CPT performance did not significantly correlate with COVID concerns expressed in a pre-task survey. However, participants who had more task-unrelated thoughts performed more poorly on the CPT. These findings suggest that although COVID-19 increased anxiety in a broad swath of society, young adults are able to hold these concerns in a latent format, minimizing their impact on performance in a demanding sustained attention task.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number41
JournalCognitive Research: Principles and Implications
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study was supported in part by the Engdahl Research Fund and a graduate research award from the Department of Psychology, University of Minnesota. JJ was supported by the Gloria J. Randahl summer fellowship and CAS was supported by an NSF graduate research fellowship.

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


  • COVID-19
  • Mental health
  • Sustained attention
  • Vigilance decrement


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