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Household Characteristics: How Lifestyle Impacts Attitudes

A major aspect of quarantining is who you live with. We have all spent an unprecedented amount of time with our housemates—be they partners, children, roommates, pets, or, for those living alone, one’s own company. The results from our Living in Boston During COVID survey indicate that who these housemates are has also impacted our attitudes toward the pandemic and social distancing.

A few weeks ago, the second report in our series on the Living in Boston During COVID survey examined a series of measures capturing attitudes toward risk and social distancing guidelines, including perceived risks of infection, the importance of social distancing guidelines, mask-wearing, and belief that COVID-19 could be spread by asymptomatic individuals. At that time we uncovered a variety of differences on these measures by neighborhood and race. We have now tested a variety of explanations for these disparities, presented in a new report released this week, including the focus of this data story: household composition.

(Note on methodology: All results presented are from regression models, which evaluate the effect of each variable independent of all other factors. These analyses took into consideration, including sex, race, political ideology, being at high-risk for a severe infection, income, education level, and others. The reader should note that we analyzed these variables simultaneously, thereby evaluating the unique effect of each independent of all other factors. (We only discuss results that reach a traditional level of statistical significance (i.e., p-value < .05).)

The most critical aspect of household composition we identified was whether a respondent was married or living with a partner. As shown in Figure 1, those who were living with a partner perceived greater risk, endorsed social distancing guidelines more strongly, were more likely to wear masks, and were more aware of asymptomatic spread than their single-living counterparts. This indicates that being married or living in a domestic partnership was a protective factor of sorts.

We suggest two ways of interpreting these results. First, it might be that living with a partner allowed for a pooling of information about the pandemic, deepening understanding of the science and commitment to mitigatory measures. Second, living with a partner might act as a buffer against the stark isolation created by the shutdown, and thus a greater acknowledgment of the risk and solidarity in accepting the necessary social distancing measures.

How many adults and children were living in the house also mattered, though these effects were fewer and less comprehensive in nature. First, those with more adults living in the house were less likely to say they believed that asymptomatic spread was possible. If we treat this question as a function of education about the virus, then it is unclear why someone with more adult housemates would be less knowledgeable, especially because we are accounting for the effects of income and educational attainment noted above. But this question might also capture “belief”; even if someone had heard about asymptomatic spread it might be counterintuitive to a lay understanding of germ theory. With that in mind, those living with multiple other adults could find the idea of asymptomatic spread hard to conceptualize because of the greater amount of immediate and indirect exposure they have through their housemates. It might also be inconvenient to a lifestyle they cannot easily change, leading them to be less likely to affirm it.

Second, those with fewer children in the house also saw social distancing guidelines as more important. Again, this might then be a factor of attitudes fitting one’s lifestyle—those with multiple children may find it difficult to “stay at home as much as possible” or avoid all gatherings, and their attitudes have come to reflect those compromises. It is worth keeping in mind, however, that the difference implied by the analysis is a fraction of a point per child on our 4-point scale. The practical upshot is that those with multiple children were more likely to respond that guidelines were “very” rather than “extremely” important.


Figure 1. Differences between those who were married or living as such as those who were not in perceived risk (top left), guideline importance (top right), likelihood of wearing masks at all times in April (bottom left), and likelihood of believing in asymptomatic spread of the disease (bottom right).

Social distancing has been treated as a one-size-fits-all set of prescriptions for behavior and activities. We noted in the first report in this series that this has equity implications. People of certain ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds are less able to stay home and avoid exposure to people outside of their households. Here we see a similar-but-less-discussed dynamic regarding household structure. Living with a partner appears to be a protective factor that enables individuals to better understand the seriousness of the pandemic and operate accordingly. Meanwhile, living alone or having more adults and children in the house might lead to a greater acceptance of trade-offs between safety and activities that they deem necessary, either for basic needs or for mental health.

The content of this post is drawn from the Living in Boston during COVID survey conducted by the Boston Area Research Initiative, the Center for Survey Research at UMass Boston, and the Boston Public Health Commission. It was funded by the National Science Foundation’s Human-Environment and Geographical Sciences (HEGS) program through a grant for rapid-response research (RAPID; Award #2032384). The results presented here were part of a longer report on “Lifestyle, Ideology, and Context Drive Attitudes”.

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