COVID-19: People perceive less risk around friends, study says

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People may be less inclined to follow public health precautions to protect against COVID-19 while in the presence of friends or even just thinking about their friends, according to new research.

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied on Thursday described how, in five online experiments that posed hypothetical scenarios, individuals perceived less likelihood of infection if it was associated with a friend and purchased fewer protective items such as face masks if they had recently thought about a friend.

In one study, those who previously contracted COVID-19 were less concerned about reinfection if they had caught the virus from a friend or family member, one example of what researchers are calling the “friend-shield effect.”

Researchers are concerned that people may be more lax about health precautions than they should be with friends, even in unsafe situations.

“Friends and family can provide a sense of comfort, but it’s irrational and dangerous to believe they will protect you from being infected by COVID-19,” Hyunjung Crystal Lee, assistant professor of marketing at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid in Spain and one of the study authors, said in a press release. “This tendency that we call the ‘friend-shield effect’ could intensify a false sense of safety and contribute to future infections.”

The participants for the experiments were sourced through the online crowdsourcing platform Prolific in 2020 and were from the U.S.

In one experiment, 262 participants who had never contracted COVID-19 were given one of three hypothetical scenarios where they had contracted COVID-19 from either a friend, acquaintance or a stranger. They were then asked questions about how much they would spend on health protection, how much of a risk taker they were and how comfortable they felt in social and health-related situations, among others.

They found that participants who imagined they had been infected by a friend were less likely to be concerned about reinfection and less likely to purchase more health protection items than the other participants who imagined that a stranger or acquaintance had given them the virus.

This effect appeared to hold up in a follow-up experiment, which looked at 109 participants who had previously contracted COVID-19 and knew who they had caught it from.

Among other questions, participants were asked to rank how likely they felt it was that they would suffer reinfection, from “not at all likely” to “very likely.”

Participants who had been infected by a family member or friend believed it was less likely that they would be reinfected than those who had been infected by an acquaintance or a stranger.

In another experiment, researchers had 495 participants take place in a friendship association task, where half were asked to write a paragraph about a close friend, and half were asked to write a paragraph about a distant acquaintance. After this task, all participants read a news article about the symptoms associated with severe COVID-19, which contained details stating that unhealthy snacks and sugary foods might increase a person’s risk of having those severe COVID-19 symptoms.

Participants were then directed to a website researchers had built which sold unhealthy snacks such as chocolate bars and bags of chips, as well as health and safety items such as hand sanitizer and face masks. Participants were told that by participating in this experiment, they could have access to a special offer allowing them to purchase one thing from the web store, if they wanted to.

Around 48 per cent of participants bought a health protection item such as face masks and 15 per cent bought a snack food they had been warned would increase their risk of severe COVID-19. Thirty-seven per cent bought nothing.

According to the experiment, participants who had written about a close friend at the start of the study were most commonly associated with purchasing the snack food. Around 27 per cent of those participants chose the snack, while only 21 per cent of the people who wrote about an acquaintance chose the snack.

Participants did not actually receive any items, but did receive monetary compensation for taking part in the study.

The fourth experiment asked participants to imagine they were visiting either a friend or an acquaintance at a crowded restaurant while their city was impacted by COVID-19, while also asking participants to define who they felt was part of their “in-group” versus their “out-group” — psychological terms that refer to a group a person feels they socially fit into and identify with versus those they do not.

Those who had more clear boundaries for what their in-group was were more likely to engage in risky behaviour with a friend, the study found.

Building on that, in a fifth study, researchers asked participants to indicate their political leanings, from “extremely liberal” at one end to “extremely conservative” at the other, running on the theory that conservative individuals were likely to have more defined in-groups and thus may be more likely to engage in risky behaviour with friends.

This was supported by the results: conservatives were less likely than liberals to expect the restaurant to be crowded or to perceive infection risk if they met a friend there rather than an acquaintance.

Researchers noted that the study is limited by the small sample sizes and the hypothetical nature of the scenarios posed to participants, adding that further research may provide more insight into the ‘friend-shield effect’.

Researchers say the experiments show that for most people, there can be a perception that threats to the self only come from the “other” — something or someone outside of a person’s social circle. The feeling of psychological safety that comes from friends isn’t bad, but may be something to be aware of when assessing whether a situation is safe, the study suggests. 

“We think health safety campaigns should make greater efforts to inform the public regarding the friend-shield effect and aim for a more holistic response to future pandemics by taking both physical infection rates and psychological risk perceptions into account,” Eline De Vries, associate professor of marketing and one of the study authors, said in the release.

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