Wearing a face may may cause people to ignore social distancing rules because they feel more comfortable ‘to take risks’, a study suggests.
Behavioural scientists found that people are more likely to maintain a smaller distance from others while wearing face masks. People said they felt comfortable sitting or standing closer to others while wearing a mask, according to researchers from Warwick Business School.
The findings suggest that those who believes face masks are effective at preventing the spread of Covid-19 are less likely to adhere to social distancing, if they or the other person is wearing a covering.
The findings have raised concerns over re-establishing social distancing rules if they are needed to help control a second wave of infections.
Lead author of the study, Ashley Luckman, said: ‘Our findings appear to be a classic case of risk compensation.
‘Wearing masks brings down the overall risk of spreading Covid-19, so people feel safer and are more willing to take other risks, such as decreasing the physical distance between them and others.
‘If the Government’s aim is to minimise transmission of the virus, its guidelines must be clear enough to prevent this trade-off, emphasising that masks are not an alternative to social distancing.’
Researchers showed 800 participants pictures of people sitting down, standing, or walking in different scenarios. These included indoor and outdoor settings, showing either both people, just one, or neither wearing a mask.
Participants were asked to say how close to others they would be willing to stand in the different settings.
In each scenario, it was found that people were more likely to tolerate a smaller distance if they or the other person were wearing a mask.
On average, participants wearing a mask felt comfortable standing 1.8 metres from another person. Without a mask, they preferred to remain more than two metres apart.
Those with the strongest belief that masks prevented them from catching Covid-19 were prepared to stand closer to others if they wore masks.
People who believed they were at the greatest risk of being admitted to hospital due to the virus were more likely to keep a larger distance, found the study, which is yet to be peer-reviewed.
The study was carried out before it became compulsory for face coverings to be worn in shops in England.
Professor of behavioural science at Warwick Business School, Daniel Read, said: ‘Our results could be particularly relevant for countries where mask usage is now high, but social distancing guidelines have been relaxed.
‘If countries need to return to greater levels of physical distancing due to a second wave of cases, that may be harder to implement than it was when mask use was low at the start of the pandemic.
‘We need more evidence to determine at what point the risks of reducing physical distance outweigh the benefits of wearing a mask’.
World news – GB – Masks ‘cannot be a trade-off for social distancing’ if there’s a second wave