Psychologists at Stony Brook University are studying how different groups of people will remember the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lauren Richmond, Ph.D., an assistant professor of cognitive science and co-principal investigator of the study, is exploring how a person’s role and experiences during the pandemic will impact memory.
She explained that a tragic event like the 9/11 terrorist attacks would likely create a vivid and emotional memory, often called a flashbulb memory. But the pandemic is unique in how people remember it because it is taking place over a long period of time and affects everybody differently.
“We’re all experiencing this in a really idiosyncratic way,” Richmond said. “And social distancing makes us really have to experience this on an individual or a really small network level. … Understanding the different varieties of experiences that different groups in different geographic locations is really important for understanding how people will remember this event later.”
Richmond said she believes the biggest difference in memory perception will be between two groups: people who are working from home and have been static through the pandemic, and people who are working and are more actively involved in the pandemic, like essential workers.
“For better or for worse, 2020 was a year that had a lot of stuff happening. So I think we have the ability to look at a few interesting facets of how we, as a nation, collectively think about some of the things that happened during that period.”– Lauren Richmond, Ph.D., assistant professor of cognitive science at Stony Brook University
To collect data, Richmond surveys participants and examines their self-reported autobiographical memories, which are based on their own perception of the world around them. She said that there is no way to know if what’s being reported is true or not.
“But we can look at – since we are doing this longitudinal data collection – whether or not what people are reporting on changes over time,” she said. She is also looking at whether any changes on a group level can be predicted by differences in the social support someone has or what news a person consumes, among other factors.“We can look at whether any of those factors seem to predict changes and stability in these memories over time.”
The surveys are also asking respondents questions about their memories of nationally and personally significant events in 2020, such as the presidential election and the Black Lives Matter protests.
“For better or for worse, 2020 was a year that had a lot of stuff happening,” Richmond said. “So I think we have the ability to look at a few interesting facets of how we, as a nation, collectively think about some of the things that happened during that period.”
Richmond said preliminary data suggests that older people have more positive memories than younger people.
The study will last as long as the pandemic lasts, she said, because “we are trying to understand how people’s experiences and memories are unfolding as the event is still unfolding.”
Richmond is tapping into the Stony Brook University community for participants, including undergraduates, affiliates at Stony Brook Medicine and older people in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, known on campus as OLLI. The team is also using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, or mTurk, a crowdsourcing website, to obtain nationally representative data. The study is being funded collaboratively by Richmond’s lab and the lab of Suparna Rajaram, Ph.D., a distinguished professor of cognitive science.