In the two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing has become a part of daily life with the use of masks and antiseptics. However, researchers from the Charles III University of Madrid, along with their friends and family, have found that people are less responsible for protection – they probably believe they won’t get infected from someone close. They wrote more about it in a magazine article. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.
Study author Dr. “Friends and family can provide a sense of comfort, but it is unreasonable and dangerous to believe that they will protect you from contracting COVID-19,” said Hyunjong Krystal Lee.
This trend, which we call the “friend shield effect,” can reinforce a false sense of security and encourage future infections.”
The scientists conducted five online experiments with US residents. In the first of them, part of a group of 495 people had to write about close friends, the rest about a distant acquaintance. All participants then read a news article stating that unhealthy snacking increases the risk of developing more severe COVID-19 symptoms, and that the use of antiseptics, hand wipes, and masks reduces the risk of infection. Participants then chose snacks (bars or chips) and health protection products (face mask, antiseptic or disinfectant wipes) from an online store.
Compared to those who wrote about a distant acquaintance, participants who wrote about a close friend were more likely to choose junk food over masks and antiseptics.
In another experiment, scientists divided 262 non-COVID-19 participants into three groups. A friend, acquaintance or stranger was asked to imagine they had contracted COVID-19. Participants were then asked how much they plan to spend on health products over the next two months.
Those who dreamed they were infected by a friend ($18.84 on average) or a stranger ($21 on average) planned to spend more than half on protective equipment ($9.28 on average). .
The next experiment involved 109 participants who had previously had COVID-19 and knew the source of their infection. Participants who had been infected by friends or family members were less likely to think they would become infected again than those who had been previously infected by acquaintances or strangers.
In the fourth experiment, 176 volunteers had to imagine that, in the midst of a pandemic, a friend or just an acquaintance had called them and invited them to dine at a cafe. They first answered the question of how close this person seemed to them on a scale of 1 to 7, and then reported how willing they were to go to lunch with him. Participants also received short definitions from the researchers about who could be considered close and who could be considered friends, and tried to classify their acquaintances into these categories. Those who found it easier agreed to have dinner with a friend more willingly. For those who had difficulty categorizing, friendship had less of an impact on health-risk behaviors.
In the latest experiment, the scientists divided a group of 301 participants into three sections. One member of each had to imagine going alone to a cafe with a friend or acquaintance. The researchers then asked them how crowded they thought the cafe would be and their political views.
Conservatives expected the coffee shop to be less crowded and to have a lower risk of contracting COVID-19 if they represented a friend with them. No such link was observed for liberals.
“We believe health safety campaigns should do more to educate the public about the ‘friend shield effect’ and strive for a more holistic response to future pandemics, taking into account both the physical indicators of infection and the psychological perception of risk,” he says. Dr. Helene de Vries is a co-author of the study.
Based on the findings, the scientists conclude that COVID-19 campaigns should warn people against engaging in more risky behavior with friends and family. Despite closer relationships, these people remain as sources of infection as anyone else, and closer contact without proper safety precautions increases the risk of infection. In addition, such campaigns, apparently, should take into account the political views of a person – conservatives do not feel danger from “us”, while more categorically dividing those around them into “us” and “them”.