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Quirky psychology that aids contagion

Breaking social distancing rules can feel less risky with people you know than with strangers. It’s a cognitive bias that’s driving coronavirus infections.

Quirky psychology that aids contagion


Passing by a coughing stranger on a sidewalk during a global pandemic or having coffee with a work friend — for most people, one of those two scenarios will sound considerably safer than the other. We know the work friend, they know us. They don’t appear unwell, and neither do we. Even if it may be risky to sit close together and remove our masks, it doesn’t really feel threatening — unlike the coughing stranger.

But it’s precisely those interactions between people who know each other that may be contributing to a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases. “The real threat we often overlook and don’t realise is there,” says Tegan Cruwys, a clinical psychologist and researcher at the Australian National University, “is our closest networks — our family, our friends, our valued communities.”


  • Feeling the threat of contagion may not be as palpable when we’re with the people we know and like. That’s not just because we prefer to spend time with them than strangers, but also because we are wired to assume our friends are less threatening 
  • As social creatures, when we identify with people and see them as being part of our community — “one of us”. We have a sense that they are trustworthy and will act in our best interests
  • That means we are less likely to perceive them as contagious, and we will be more tolerant of any symptoms they may have. As a result, we’re more likely to take risks around them — sit close together, share food, or hug them
  • But just because we think like that doesn’t necessarily mean the people closest to us are less risky when it comes to disease transmission. Contagious diseases don’t respect those group boundaries 


  • Instead of telling people to simply stay home and avoid all social contact, harm reduction is based on the idea that it isn’t always possible to eliminate risk, and instead advocates lower-risk choices that are sustainable for people
  • During the pandemic, that could take the form of a “quaranteam” or a “risk bubble” — two ideas that have been recommended in the UK and New Zealand — whereby a small group of people agree to reduce their social circles to include just a trusted few 
  • A study, published in Nature, compared several social distancing models and found a “closed group” the most effective way to limit viral spread 

— This article was provided by Deutsche Welle

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