The researchers demonstrated this through five different experiments with a wide variety of people throughout the pandemic.
Lee said she and de Vries were interested in the job because, as they lived through the pandemic, they began to wonder what makes people take risks and what conditions would make them feel vulnerable or invulnerable.
“And then we went down the rabbit hole,” de Vries added.
It’s what they call the “friendly shield effect.”
“The idea was that we perceive our friends as a shield. We feel safe when covid-19 is associated with friendship,” de Vries said, even though we shouldn’t.
The first experiment involved junk food. The teachers divided the participants into two groups. One was asked to think of a close friend. The other group was asked to think of a distant acquaintance. Both wrote memories of those people. Then they were given an article that argued that eating unhealthy snacks could increase a person’s risk of developing severe covid. The article also mentioned that hand sanitizers and masks were protective.
Groups were then allowed to shop online at a store that offered travel-size hand sanitizer and masks and Cheez-Its and king-size Twix bars and Mars bars. The group that thought of their close friends first were much more likely to buy junk food than protective gear, despite warnings.
A second experiment divided the participants into three groups. None had had Covid. They were then told to imagine that they had been infected by a friend, acquaintance or stranger. They were then asked how much they would spend on health protection in the coming months. Those who imagined they got sick from strangers or people they weren’t close to planned to buy about the same amount. Those who got sick of friends planned to spend half. The experiment confirmed that “positive emotions can make people relatively risk-averse and likely to engage in risky behavior,” the study said.
A third experiment involved people who had covid-19 at one point in the pandemic and knew how they got sick after being exposed to covid. Those who were exposed by a friend or family member were much less likely to think they would get it again compared to those who got sick after exposure from an acquaintance or stranger.
The fifth experiment looked at people’s friendships and took political ideology into account. Previous research has shown that politically conservative people draw sharper distinctions between who is a friend and who is an acquaintance.
In that experiment, people were asked to imagine going to a favorite coffee shop alone, with a close friend, or an acquaintance. They were asked how crowded they thought the cafeteria would be and how likely they were to get sick after being exposed to someone there. They were also asked how they would describe themselves politically. Conservatives thought the cafeteria would be less crowded and they would be less likely to get sick if they went with a friend than if they went with an acquaintance.
“People who had the clearest boundaries of who is a close friend and who they are distant from show the greatest friend shield effect and feel the most invulnerable to covid,” de Vries said.
In all, these studies seem to repeatedly show that people are simply not good at perceiving risks when friends are involved, even if the risk was beyond this person in their social circle. This is what the study called a “potentially dangerous irrational bias,” as limited interaction with others is the most protective behavior in a pandemic.
“Risk seems less threatening when it’s associated with something positive, like a friend or friends, so it makes sense that going to a favorite coffee shop with friends, even at the height of a pandemic, feels good, even if you really mean it.” is”. t,” said Byrne, an assistant professor of psychology at Clemson University.
Byrne’s research also found that people who identify as conservative have a lower perceived risk of participating in social activities during the pandemic. In part, she said, this is because the pandemic has been politicized and her strong sense of boundaries about who is a friend further lowers her perceived risk.
The studies, he said, seemed to create realistic scenarios, and while they are experiments, “there is a fair connection between intention and actual behavior.”
Byrne believes that designers of public health campaigns should take this research into account. It’s good for people’s mental health to stay in touch with friends, but people should be encouraged to meet in safer spaces, like a park or some other outdoor spot, she said.
“I think it’s certainly possible to maintain social interaction in a pandemic, while continuing to make efforts to reduce the risk of infection,” Byrne said.
“We would like a more holistic response,” Lee said. “Risk perception was more neglected in the current pandemic strategy.”
“Hopefully, we’ll never need this information in the future and we won’t have another pandemic, but if we do need it, we need to keep this in mind. Perception matters,” Lee added.