Why smart people believe coronavirus myths

Why smart people believe coronavirus myths – BBC FutureBy David Robson – Apr 2020

This shows that intelligence alone doesn’t provide immunity from hoax messaging, and reminds me not to get lazy and just follow my “hunches”.

We’ve debunked several claims here on BBC Future, including misinformation around how sunshine, warm weather and drinking water can affect the coronavirus.

The BBC’s Reality Check team is also checking popular coronavirus claims, and the World Health Organization is keeping a myth-busting page regularly updated too.

I find it sad that it’s come to this: a global science-based agency having to use precious time and energy defending its actions against myths that can be dispelled so easily. 

One poll by YouGov and the Economist in March 2020 found 13% of Americans believed the Covid-19 crisis was a hoax, for example, while a whopping 49% believed the epidemic might be man-made.

And while you might hope that greater brainpower or education would help us to tell fact from fiction, it is easy to find examples of many educated people falling for this false information.

Information overload

Part of the problem arises from the nature of the messages themselves.

We are bombarded with information all day, every day, and we therefore often rely on our intuition to decide whether something is accurate

purveyors of fake news can make their message feel “truthy” through a few simple tricks, which discourages us from applying our critical thinking skills – such as checking the veracity of its source

Eryn Newman at Australian National University, for instance, has shown that the simple presence of an image alongside a statement increases our trust in its accuracy – even if it is only tangentially related to the claim.

A generic image of a virus accompanying some claim about a new treatment, say, may offer no proof of the statement itself, but it helps us visualise the general scenario. We take that “processing fluency” as a sign that the claim is true.

For similar reasons, misinformation will include descriptive language or vivid personal stories. It will also feature just enough familiar facts or figures – such as mentioning the name of a recognised medical body – to make the lie within feel convincing, allowing it to tether itself to our previous knowledge.

Even the simple repetition of a statement – whether the same text, or over multiple messages – can increase the “truthiness” by increasing feelings of familiarity, which we mistake for factual accuracy.

So, the more often we see something in our news feed, the more likely we are to think that it’s true – even if we were originally sceptical

Sharing before thinking

These tricks have long been known by propagandists and peddlers of misinformation, but today’s social media may exaggerate our gullible tendencies. Recent evidence shows that many people reflexively share content without even thinking about its accuracy.

Perhaps their brains were engaged in wondering whether a statement would get likes and retweets rather than considering its accuracy. “Social media doesn’t incentivise truth,” Pennycook says. “What it incentivises is engagement.”

Override reactions

Classic psychological research shows that some people are naturally better at overriding their reflexive responses than others.

Author: David Robson is the author of The Intelligence Trap, which examines why smart people act foolishly and the ways we can all make wiser decisions. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.
As an award-winning science site, BBC Future is committed to bringing you evidence-based analysis and myth-busting stories around the new coronavirus. You can read more of our Covid-19 coverage here.

5 thoughts on “Why smart people believe coronavirus myths

  1. canarensis

    One of the things I find in the psychology of humans is how badly we’re constructed as far as using facts & evidence in our general lives, & how incredibly stupi—-er, gullible, we can be. I’ve read several studies which show that scam artists, who you’d think would know better, are actually very likely to be taken in by other people’s scams.

    Or the whole subject of eyewitness testimony. People are so convinced that if they see a crime or catastrophe they know exactly what happened & their “facts” are infallible. Unfortunately, a truly obscene number of people are in prison or executed on eyewitness testimony, later proven by hard facts like DNA evidence. One famous study (it was actually on attention) had volunteers watch a brief tape of 6 people passing a basketball & were told to count the number of times one team passed the ball (like any psych study, they didn’t know what it was really testing). In the middle of the tape, a person in a gorilla costume walked onto the court in the middle of the passers, turned to the camera & beat its chest, then strolled offstage. Later questioning showed that about half of the watchers never saw the gorilla. Many refused to believe there was one. Some were shown the tape again & adamantly insisted that the researchers were lying to them & showing them a different video.

    I suppose this may not seem to be entirely germane to the subject of gullibility, but it sure proves that what we see & hear & think is true, ain’t necessarily so. We must question our perceptions if there’s any hope of rational thinking, action, rules, government, medical care…..basically, of rational civilization. We must think & seek verification, not just blindly believe (I can hear societal whining; “But it’s so harrrrd!).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      I remember that “gorilla” study! And the longer I live, the less I trust my memory or even long held assumptions. I’ve just been wrong so many times, I’m clearly not infallible :-)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. canarensis

        Ah, but none of us are. The only thing we can do is remember that & try to check our assumptions & beliefs against reality, reason, & evidence…maybe even against things like mercy & compassion. But that is too hard & too scary for a lot of people. I try to do it but I know I fail sometimes & have a veritable lifetime parade of wrong. Too many don’t try at all, & that sure messes things up for everyone.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Zyp Czyk Post author

          Good point about “trying”, even unsuccessfully, still being better than making no effort at all.

          Sometimes, it’s really easy to say I was wrong, but other times I feel a strong resistance in myself. The “being wrong” that’s the hardest to admit always involves another person – no surprise there. It shows me exactly where my own flaws are – which is why those kinds of errors embarrass me.

          Liked by 1 person


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