Facemask Wearing and Social Distancing: A Test of Risk Compensation Theory
Studies suggest facemask wearing and social distancing are convenient ways to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. However, people might feel an unwarranted sense of safety when engaging in these COVID-prevention behaviors, as predicted by risk compensation theory. Our field research evaluated whether risk compensation influences facemask wearing and social distancing. The evidence-based theory of risk homeostasis presumes individuals will take more risks when they feel more protected. Therefore, someone wearing a facemask should feel safer and subsequently stand closer to others. Research students tested this theory by observing facemask wearing and social distancing in various locations. These students recorded three different observations in a Qualtrics survey: 1) an individual’s gender, 2) mask-wearing behavior (wearing a facemask, wearing a facemask incorrectly, or not wearing a facemask), and 3) the estimated distance between the individual and the nearest person within a six-foot radius. Our field observations of 2,068 individuals revealed that people wearing a facemask maintained greater social/interpersonal distances than did people not wearing a facemask or wearing a facemask incorrectly. This finding supports response generalization or a positive spillover effect rather than risk compensation.