“The pandemic is a crisis of confidence”, says Boudewijn de Bruin (University of Groningen). Together with Mark Alfano (Macquarie University (Sydney)) and Marco Meyer (University Harmburg), he researched why many people accept medical misinformation about the virus and, alarmingly, are indifferent to evidence disproving it.
Does eating garlic protect you from the coronavirus? Can houseflies infect you with it? Does COVID-19 only affect the elderly? Based on newly published research, one in five adults accepts these and other medical myths linked to the pandemic.
In two separate studies, 1737 people aged between 18 and 74 were surveyed about their attitudes towards a variety of evidence-free claims circulating in the media and on the internet about ways to catch or prevent COVID-19.
The surveys¹ were conducted in the US in June 2020 during widespread lockdowns across multiple states, and tested attitudes towards conspiracy theories and misinformation including that 5G networks were spreading the virus or that coronavirus was a bioweapon.
The studies² conducted by a team of philosophy researchers from Macquarie University, the University of Hamburg in Germany and Groningen University in the Netherlands, found 20 per cent of adults thought they were immune to the coronavirus because of their age, their diet and a variety of other myths.
“This means that experts need to try extra hard to prove they are trustworthy. And checking whether they are reaching the vulnerable population, says Boudewijn de Bruin, professor financial ethics at University of Groningen.
While it may be tempting to dismiss these ideas as misinformation endorsed by a minority of the population, the ongoing pandemic has shown that successful public health outcomes depend on everyone doing their part. When people refuse to wear masks even if other people are doing their part – you will still see the virus continue to spread.
Researchers found people who demonstrate indifference to evidence are especially likely to accept misinformation. One in five people surveyed were happy to tell researchers that they don’t much care about the reasons for and against what they believe, and that once they’ve jumped to a conclusion they’re extremely reluctant to change their minds.
“There is no reason to assume that these results would be significantly different here in The Netherlands, expects de Bruin. “If you think you are immune because of your age or your diet, you have of course no reason to change your behaviour.”
The research shows the spread of COVID-19 can in part be positively influenced by where people place their trust. "We are not doctors, and therefore do not pretend that we can tell people what to believe. What we can do based on our research is encouraging people to use their trust wisely," says de Bruin. Although the pandemic may be on the way down in the Netherlands, that is not the case for a large part of the world. It helps if you take the advice of medical experts seriously. "
When investigating why the adults surveyed accepted misinformation about COVID-19, de Bruin and his colleagues found credence in medical misinformation primarily depended on how people deal with new evidence. Participants were asked whether they liked to learn new things, whether they thought it was important to know why things happen, whether they preferred to hear both sides of a debate, whether they were aware that they don’t already know everything about certain issues, and whether they therefore relied on experts such as doctors.
People who do not fall for misinformation about COVID-19 have two qualities in common: they are curious, and they are willing to change their minds if necessary. They remain open and change their mind when they come across evidence from reliable sources that contradicts what they previously believed.
A much larger group of people are curious, but they are not particularly interested in finding out the reliability of their sources. And that is where the danger lies, because it is precisely people with this profile who believe the COVID-19 myths. Their curiosity makes them gather a lot of information about the pandemic, but they don't wonder which sources to trust.
There is a lesson here for policymakers, the researchers warn. Public health experts must demonstrate their trustworthiness, with our medical institutions also taking steps to ensure they are perceived as independent and resistant to political influence.
“That doesn't always work. The moment the suspicion arises that political activities are being conducted in bodies such as RIVM, this puts pressure on their role as a reliable advisor. Here is the motto: cobbler stick to your last.”
For more information, please contact Boudewijn de Bruin.
The Dutch Research Council’s (NWO) Social Sciences and Humanities Domain Board has awarded two grants to professor Bernard Nijstad and professor Boudewijn de Bruin.
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