Scientists warn of COVID ‘friend-shield effect’: ‘Irrational to believe’ loved ones protecting you from virus

WASHINGTON — Are your friends and family shielding you from seeing the dangers of COVID-19? A new study finds that people take fewer safety precautions when they’re with close friends and loved ones than they do around acquaintances and strangers.

Scientists in Spain suggest that this is a result of people feeling less vulnerable to COVID and believing the virus is less harmful when their friends are around them.

“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,” says study author Hyunjung Crystal Lee from Universidad Carlos III de Madrid in a media release. “This tendency that we call the ‘friend-shield effect’ could intensify a false sense of safety and contribute to future infections.”

Study authors add that people have become more and more accustomed to spending time with only their closest friends and family instead of bigger social circles during the pandemic. This, however, can actually lead to a greater risk of infection as people drop their guard in certain situations.

For the study, the team conducted five online experiments with American participants. In one of those tests, they found people were less likely to be cautious during the pandemic just by thinking about a friend while reading news about coronavirus. Participants were also less likely to take added precautions if they believed a friend infected them with COVID instead of a stranger.

People on the right believe in the COVID friend-shield more

Conservatives were more likely than liberals to take fewer precautions around friends, according to the study. In one experiment with 495 participants, one group of people had to write down memories of a close friend while another group did the same for a distant acquaintance.

All participants then read a news article stating that unhealthy snacks can increase risks of more severe COVID-19 infection symptoms, while the use of hand sanitizers, face masks, and disinfecting wipes can reduce the likelihood of infection.

The participants then chose either a junk food item or a pandemic protection product from an online store. Participants who wrote about a close friend were more likely to pick junk food over a health protection product than those who wrote about a distant acquaintance.

Does the source of infection matter?

Another experiment divided 262 healthy participants into three groups. Each person had to imagine that they contracted COVID-19 from either a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger. Participants then revealed how much they planned to spend on health products over the next two months.

Those who imagined that a friend gave them COVID planned to spend less than half as much on health products than those imagining that someone else exposed them to the virus.

The next experiment involved 109 people previously infected with COVID-19 who knew the source of their infection. Participants infected by friends or family members were less likely to think they would catch COVID for a second time in comparison to those previously infected by strangers.

In the final experiment, researchers split 301 participants into three groups who had to envision themselves going to a coffee shop either alone, with a friend, or with an acquaintance. Study authors then asked the groups how crowded they expected the coffee shop to be and about their political affiliation.

Again, conservatives expected the coffee shop to be less crowded and thought they were less likely to contract COVID-19 if they were with a friend rather than going with an acquaintance or by themselves. The study did not find a similar connection among liberals.

“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,” says study co-author Dr. Eline De Vries.

The findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

South West News Service writer Gwyn Wright contributed to this report.

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