Thinking that our friends are protecting us from COVID-19 is wrong

(CNN) – Your close friends can help you get out of trouble. They may know how to listen and they may know how to keep you company over a meal or drink. But according to a new study, they’re not very good at preventing you from contracting COVID-19.

A study published this Thursday revealed that although the people we consider to be good mental health friends, when it comes to an infectious disease like the Covid virus, your friends may make you more susceptible to it. That’s what two researchers, and best friends, discovered with the five studies they published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Hyunjung Crystal Lee and Eline De Vries are associate professors and marketing specialists who specialize in consumer behavior and business psychology in the Department of Business Administration at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid.

It has long been known that friendship, while beneficial from a psychological point of view, can distort a person’s perception of risk. Awareness of risk stems from a person’s ability to judge the severity and likelihood of a negative outcome. Previous studies have shown that people tend to feel more secure when they are in a close relationship with someone, and this can lead them to make emotional decisions rather than rational ones.

The researchers demonstrated this through five different experiments with a diverse group of people over the course of the pandemic.

She told me that she and de Vries became interested in working because, while living through the pandemic, they began to wonder what makes people take risks and what conditions make people feel weak or vulnerable.

“Then we went to the rabbit hole,” de Vries added.

This is what they call the ‘sympathetic shield effect’.

“The idea was to look at our friends as a shield. We feel safe when the coronavirus is associated with friendship,” de Vries said, although we shouldn’t.

The first experiment included fast food. The researchers divided the participants into two groups. Someone was asked to think of a close friend. The other group was asked to think of an acquaintance from afar. They both wrote the memories of these people.

They were then given an article arguing that eating unhealthy snacks could increase a person’s risk of contracting COVID-19. The article also stated that hand sanitizers and face masks were protective.

Groups were then allowed to shop online at a store that offered travel-size hand sanitizers and masks, as well as extra-large Cheez-Its and Twix and Mars candies. The group who thought of their best friends first were more likely to buy junk food than to buy protective gear, despite the caveats.

The second experiment divided the participants into three groups. Nobody had covid. They were asked to imagine that they had been injured by a friend, acquaintance, or a stranger. They were then asked how much they would spend on health protection in the next two months. Those who imagined they were getting it from strangers or people who didn’t even come close to planning to buy it for the same amount. Those who got sick because of friends planned to spend half. The experiment confirmed that “positive emotions can make people relatively indifferent to risk and more likely to engage in risky behavior,” according to the study.

A third trial involved people who had had COVID-19 at some point in the epidemic and who knew how sick they had after being exposed to COVID. Those exposed by a friend or family member were much less likely to believe they would get it again compared to those who got the disease after exposure from an acquaintance or stranger.

The fourth study compared how people with a strong sense of limits felt about their risk of contracting Covid when they visited their favorite burger joint. Those who clearly rated others in the category of friends or acquaintances were less reluctant to go out to eat with a friend than an acquaintance. Those with more pervasive boundaries, whether the person was a friend or acquaintance, were unaffected by their decision to eat indoors in this type of risky situation.

The fifth experiment looked at people’s friendships and considered their political ideology. Previous research has shown that political conservatives draw clearer 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 describe themselves politically. Conservatives believe that the cafeteria will be less crowded and that they will be less likely to get sick if they go with a friend than if they go with an acquaintance.

“People who have clear boundaries to who is a close friend and who is far away show the greatest friend shield effect and feel more vulnerable from Covid,” de Vries said.

Altogether, these studies seem to show time and time again that people are not very good at perceiving risks when friends are involved, even if the risk goes beyond that person’s social circle. This is what the study called “potentially dangerous irrational bias,” as limited interaction with others is the most protective behavior in any pandemic.

Kylie Angela Byrne, who did not work on these studies but has done research on epidemiological risk, called the trials a “really interesting read” and builds on work showing that “when confidence is high, risk perception is low.”

“Risk seems less threatening when combined with something positive, like a friend or group of friends, so it makes sense that going to your favorite coffee shop with friends, even in the midst of an epidemic, is a good thing, even if you’re not,” said Byrne, assistant professor of psychology. Clemson University.

Byrne’s research also found that people who are considered conservative have lower risks of participating in social activities during the pandemic. In part, he said, this is because the pandemic has been politicized, and his strong sense of boundary about who is a friend further reduces his perceived risk.

The studies seemed to create realistic scenarios, he said, and although they are experiments, “there is a good relationship between intent and actual behavior.”

Byrne believes that public health campaign designers should take this research into account. It’s good for people’s mental health, he said, to keep in touch with friends, but people should be encouraged to meet in safer places, such as a park or other outdoor setting.

“I think it is possible to maintain social interaction in the event of a pandemic while still making efforts to reduce the risk of infection,” Byrne said.

Some public health guidelines encourage people to limit interactions with closed circles of friends, but de Vries and Lee hope their study will benefit public health policy in the future. People should be reminded to be careful even with close friends.

“We’d like a more comprehensive response,” he told me. “Risk awareness has been more neglected in the current strategy to combat the epidemic.”

“Hopefully we will never need this information in the future and we won’t have another pandemic, but if we do, we have to keep that in mind. Realization is important,” Lee added.

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