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The COVID-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented changes in the day-to-day behaviours of populations globally, especially in areas where social distancing rules have been mandated. Understanding the cognitive mechanisms underlying (un)successful behaviour change around social distancing is crucial to inform public health policy for both the current and future crises. In this study, we utilise tasks probing delay discounting (the preference for immediate versus delayed rewards) and patch foraging (evaluating the trade-off between exploiting a known resource and exploring an unknown one) to investigate cognitive predictors of social distancing and mental health symptoms. Participants (N=442) were recruited from a large UK cohort (N=2025) nationally representative in age, gender and income. Greater sensitivity to reward magnitude during delay discounting predicted lower adherence to social distancing measures and higher levels of mood and anxiety symptoms. In addition, under-valuing recently sampled information during foraging separately predicted greater violation of social distancing. Analyses examining cognitive factors underpinning social distancing behaviour across two time points (early and late phases of the pandemic) additionally revealed that greater sensitivity to magnitude of rewards on offer during delay discounting predicted a greater decline in psychological inclination to maintain social distancing. Moreover, under-valuing recent information during foraging separately predicted less motivation to engage in social distancing during the established phase of the pandemic. The findings suggest that those who typically regulate their mood through behaviours that bring about immediate reward are also those who struggle to maintain social distancing. Further, those who adapt more quickly to new information showed better ability to change their behaviour in response to public health measures. These findings highlight the need for public health initiatives that bolster sustained confidence in planning around social distancing by emphasising the immediate rewards to self as well as longer term benefits.
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