People may take fewer COVID-19 safety precautions and feel less vulnerable to infection when around friends.
Researchers from Universidad Carlos III de Madrid in Spain were inspired to undertake the research after realising they felt safer when with close friends.
“We recognized that we felt more or less vulnerable to COVID infection dependent on the people we were with. We discussed how we likely feel safer in terms of COVID risk when we are with close friends. We became fascinated by this personal, seemingly irrational bias, and wanted to study in which context such friend-shield bias would manifest,” Hyunjung Crystal Lee, PhD, assistant professor of marketing at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid and co-author of the study told Theravive.
To study this in more detail, the researchers conducted online experiments of US residents.
In one experiment involving 495 people, participants were asked to write down a memory of either a close friend or a distant acquaintance. Following this, they read a news article that noted eating unhealthy foods could increase the risk of severe COVID-19, whilst using protective items like hand sanitizer could lower the risk.
The participants were then asked to choose either a junk food snack or a protective item like hand sanitizer.
Those who wrote about a close friend were more likely to choose junk food.
Another experiment involved 109 people who had been infected with COVID-19 and knew where their infection came from.
Those who had been infected by a friend or family member were less likely to believe they would be infected again compared with those who had been infected by a stranger or acquaintance.
From all of the experiments, the researchers found that people engaged in less behaviors that were protective against COVID-19 when thinking about or with close friends.
“Whether people thought of a friend while reading COVID-19 related news, perceived a friend as the source of prior COVID-19 infection, or noted a friend’s presence while dining at an indoor restaurant, people decided to purchase less health-protective items (such as masks and hand sanitizers) and perceived less likelihood of COVID-19 infection, even when the infection risk could stem from anonymous crowds who shared the same space,” Eline De Vries, PhD, also an associate professor of marketing at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, and co-author of the research told Theravive.
Whilst being around friends and family can offer a sense of comfort and safety, the authors say it can be dangerous to hold the belief that being among close friends will offer protection against COVID-19.
The researchers refer to this belief as the “friend-shield effect”.
“With the friend-shield effect we refer to the phenomenon of individuals feeling invulnerable to COVID-19 when the infection risk is associated with close friends. Being with close friends boosts feelings of safety, which spill over to situations in which we are exposed to virus infection risks from anonymous crowds,” the authors said.
“This can be problematic because limiting interactions to close friends and family members
has been a common protective measure to reduce COVID transmission during the pandemic. Our research demonstrates that this practice may unintentionally backfire, in that people tend to feel a false sense of safety and estimate less health risk. As a result, people tend to engage in less health-protective behaviors because of the fiend-shield effect.”
The researchers found that the friend-shield effect was most evident among those who viewed themselves as conservatives, compared with those who viewed themselves as liberals.
“The friend-shield effect is especially strong for people who make clear distinctions between people that are close to them (their so-called in-group) and people that are not so close (their out-group). This is generally the case for politically more conservative as opposed to politically more liberal citizens, and hence we found that the friend-shield effect was most prominent among politically conservative people. Arguably, conservatives may resist COVID-19 precautions and protections more than liberals in part because of a stronger friend-shield effect,” the study authors said.
They are hopeful that the findings of their study will highlight the importance of continuing to engage in protective behaviors, even among close friends or family.
“We should be mindful of the friend-shield effect and try to counteract it to stay safe from contagious diseases. No matter how loving and intimate, friends and family cannot protect you from contracting and suffering from COVID transmitted from a wide range of other people,” they said.
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.