Time Flies During a Pandemic: How Attentional Bias and Event Boundaries Impact Memory of 2020
Delaney Falsken and Dillon Murphy
When asked to remember what happened in the year 2020, most people will likely dwell on a major theme: COVID-19. Due to the impact of the coronavirus, people’s recall of events during the past year may center around experiences that were shaped by the pandemic and the implementation of safety protocols. Specifically, with social distancing and stay-at-home orders, the emergence of COVID-19 in the United States has brought about significant changes to daily life and social functioning. As a result of more time spent at home and fewer opportunities for in-person social interactions, there are diminished external cues and markers to indicate the passage of time.
The coronavirus has impacted many lives across the nation, and consequently, there are many commonalities among people’s memory for the past year. For example, most college students share the memory of adapting to online learning environments, engaging in course discussions without seeing their classmates in person, and maintaining a daily schedule despite rarely leaving their home. This shared pool of individual memories that shape a group’s identity or collective understanding of a time period exemplifies collective memory (Hirst & Manier, 2008). Specifically, students each have their own experiences, but due to the pandemic, there is greater potential for cohesion among their later memory and understanding of 2020. When applied more broadly to all people living in the United States, collective memory for the COVID-19 pandemic creates a degree of commonality among peoples’ memory for events from this past year.
In addition to several cohesive memories of 2020, many people share a heavy focus on the health concerns that emerged as a result of the spread of COVID-19. With more attention on preventing the risks of contagion, people may experience higher health anxiety (the fear of having an illness or physical ailments such as a heart attack or stroke). As a result, another factor shaping memory for the past year is attentional bias: the increased or selective attention towards particular stimuli (Asmundson et al., 2004).
In 2020, attentional bias may have resulted in an elevated focus on information regarding COVID-19 and individual health risks rather than daily life activities. Specifically, with an increased emphasis on preventing the spread of the virus and maintaining personal safety, many people have become more aware of contagion and potential health risks, shaping their daily activities, and subsequently, their memory. For example, since most in-person events were canceled during the pandemic, people who normally enjoy going to concerts or other music venues with their friends have been unable to do so, removing many of the normal activities that previously characterized their social lives. Furthermore, higher health anxiety predicts greater attentional bias towards virus-related stimuli (Anzani et al., 2020), and as a result, people may pay more attention to news and information related to the virus as compared to normal life events. Thus, peoples’ memory for the events of the past year may be centered around efforts to prevent exposure and contraction of the virus rather than typical life events like spending time outdoors or with friends and family.
Due to the regulations and protocols enforced during the past year, people have spent more time in their homes with fewer opportunities for social events and interactions. As a result, people’s lives have remained relatively consistent regarding daily household activities, leading to fewer external indications of change. Recent work has indicated that moment-to-moment changes in context dynamically impact the formation of discrete episodic memories (Clewett & Davachi, 2017); thus, the lack of contextual changes during 2020 may lead to the formation of fewer discrete memories. Additionally, the relative distinctiveness principle posits that information will be remembered to the extent that it is more distinct than competing information (Neath, 2010). However, without such distinctiveness in individual memory for the events of 2020, time may appear to have “flown by” over the past year.
In addition to the role of distinctiveness in remembering past experiences, event boundaries can impact memory for how close in time two events occurred. People generally segment experiences into meaningful units of activity and the distinctions between these episodes are referred to as event boundaries. Recent work has demonstrated that temporally adjacent (i.e., close together in time) items that share similar context cues (i.e., location, arousal states, mood) are more likely to produce shorter estimates of temporal distance than items that don’t share a context (Clewett et al., 2019). Thus, in situations with fewer event boundaries, similar contexts may facilitate the integration of episodic memories, contributing to events being remembered as having appeared closer together in time (Davachi & Ezzyat, 2014). For example, in 2020, the interval of time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day celebrations may be compressed in peoples’ memories compared to prior years. Specifically, the past year did not feature as many novel experiences or event boundaries that would typically separate our mental representations of continuous experience, making these events perceived as more temporally adjacent.
In sum, attentional bias and event boundaries likely played a significant role in shaping both individual and collective memory for the year 2020. COVID-19 introduced a significant health concern that, as a result of an attentional bias towards virus-related events and information, likely resulted in an elevated focus on news and protocol to prevent health risks rather than normal life events. Additionally, with more time spent at home, fewer event boundaries distinguish between different daily events, contributing to the potentially shortened perceptions of time between peoples’ episodic memories from the past year. Thus, attentional bias towards COVID-19 and increased time spent at home with fewer changes in normal life likely impacted peoples’ memories and the perceived passage of time in 2020, exemplifying why time flies by during a pandemic.
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