Do Your Friendships Feel Different? Covid May Be to Blame
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared that COVID-19 was a global pandemic. After this, many governments recommended public health measures such as social distancing and quarantining to slow the spread of the disease. While these practices reduced the risk of COVID-19 infection, an unintended consequence of these measures is that many people reported feeling isolated and less socially connected to others. During non-pandemic times, friendships help protect against these adverse outcomes.
But Do Friendships Still Provide These Benefits During The Pandemic?
Researchers studying friendship before the pandemic documented that friendships provide many benefits, such as being associated with faster recovery times, increased well-being, and protection against physical and mental illnesses. Friendships may be a valuable resource for managing unforeseen challenges such as those experienced during pandemics, yet public health measures have made it harder to engage in these relationships. News stories have also reported that the pandemic has made it harder for people to make new friends and maintain existing friendships. This led my colleagues and me to investigate how people feel their friendships have changed during the pandemic.
We asked a group of international participants about themselves and their friendships during the pandemic at two different times. During the first survey, our participants responded to basic questions about their health and how they manage their risks during the pandemic. During the second survey, the same group of participants responded to questions about how the pandemic has affected their friendships.
Generally, we found that our participants believed the pandemic has negatively affected their friendships. This seemed particularly true for younger people and people with higher subjective socioeconomic status (meaning they felt they were better off compared to those around them). Younger people reported feeling lonelier than older people, even though they also reported a greater desire to make more new friends, had more contact with their current friends, and reported making new friends during the pandemic. People with higher subjective socioeconomic status reported similar potentially risky social behaviors, such as making new friends during the pandemic and wishing they had a wider network of friends, even though they indicated they were currently satisfied with their friendships. It is possible that people with higher subjective socioeconomic status reported these preferences because they feel that they are better prepared to deal with the consequences of these behaviors compared to others around them. However, we cannot be confident in this speculation until more research on this topic is conducted.
We also found that people who experienced more pandemic-induced stress reported feeling more isolated from their friends, lonelier, and more guilty for not checking in on their friends in person during the pandemic. In addition, we found that people who transferred some of their risk to others (by asking for help preparing for the pandemic from friends and family) felt guiltier for not checking in on their friends in person. They also wanted to have a wider network for friends and had a greater desire to make more new friends, potentially to increase their number of risk transfer partners. But we cannot be sure that this is the ultimate motivation behind these preferences until more research is conducted.
We Should Use Friendships To Reinforce Adherence To Public Health Measures
Taken together, our results seem to agree with news reports - people find it harder to make new friends and maintain existing friendships during the pandemic. To compensate for this unexpected hardship, we believe that people may be more motivated to make new friends during the pandemic, which would explain why younger participants and those with higher subjective socioeconomic status reported engaging in potentially risky social behaviors during the pandemic.
If this speculation is accurate, then it could mean that people are less likely to adhere to policies that, although created to preserve their health, limit their ability to engage in positive social relationships. (See blog “SOMETIMES, THE PEOPLE WHO SEEM SAFEST ACTUALLY POSE THE BIGGEST RISK. WHY?” February 26, 2021.) By extension, policy makers and public health officials need to consider how they can leverage positive social relationships such as friendships to increase people’s adherence to public health protocols.
My colleagues and I are conducting follow up studies to determine how people are dealing with these negative impacts. How are people coping with these changes? Are some coping strategies better than others? How can we turn these coping strategies into effective ways to increase adherence to public health policies during the current pandemic?
For Further Reading
Ayers, J. D., Guevara Beltrán, D., Van Horn, A., Cronk, L., Todd, P., & Aktipis, A. (2022). Younger people and people with higher subjective SES experienced more negative effects of the pandemic on their friendships. Personality and Individual Differences, 185, 111246. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2021.111246
Jessica D. Ayers is a Ph.D. candidate in Social Psychology at Arizona State University. Her research centers on understanding how differences in genetic “blueprints” influence human development, health, and social relationships.