PLoS ONE (Jan 2021)
A Bayesian approach to reveal the key role of mask wearing in modulating projected interpersonal distance during the first COVID-19 outbreak.
Humans typically create and maintain social bonds through interactions that occur at close social distances. The interpersonal distance of at least 1 m recommended as a relevant measure for COVID-19 contagion containment requires a significant change in everyday behavior. In a web-based experimental study conducted during the first pandemic wave (mid-April 2020), we asked 242 participants to regulate their preferred distance towards confederates who did or did not wear protective masks and gloves and whose COVID-19 test results were positive, negative, or unknown. Information concerning dispositional factors (perceived vulnerability to disease, moral attitudes, and prosocial tendencies) and situational factors (perceived severity of the situation in the country, frequency of physical and virtual social contacts, and attitudes toward quarantine) that may modulate compliance with safety prescriptions was also acquired. A Bayesian analysis approach was adopted. Individual differences did not modulate interpersonal distance. We found strong evidence in favor of a reduction of interpersonal distance towards individuals wearing protective equipment and who tested negative to COVID-19. Importantly, shorter interpersonal distances were maintained towards confederates wearing protective gear, even when their COVID-19 test result was unknown or positive. This protective equipment-related regulation of interpersonal distance may reflect an underestimation of perceived vulnerability to infection; this perception must be discouraged when pursuing individual and collective health-safety measures.