Having less accurate knowledge about COVID-19 is associated with a greater likelihood of contracting the virus, according to new research published in Scientific Reports. The findings indicate that people who believe misinformation about COVID-19 are at greater risk of getting sick compared to their more knowledgeable counterparts.
“When the pandemic first broke out in the spring of 2020, my lab group was struck by the fact that the entire nation was being asked to change their behavior, i.e., to comply with the social distancing recommendations,” said study author Russell H. Fazio, the Harold E. Burtt Chair in Psychology at The Ohio State University.
“Hence, we came to regard the directive as a call for action on the part of behavioral scientists. By May, we had initiated what became a series of studies examining the beliefs and individual difference variables that related to social distancing behavior. Eventually, we re-contacted the initial participants to ask whether they had contracted COVID-19, including whether they had tested positively for the virus, during the intervening four months.”
“Our first analyses focused on the effectiveness of social distancing,” Fazio explained. “The findings, which were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicated that social distancing was effective at the level of the individual. That is, not only do community transmission rates drop when government entities impose restrictions, but the very persons who engage in more social distancing behavior decrease their personal likelihood of contracting COVID-19. The Scientific Reports article took this a step further, examining beliefs and personal characteristics that predicted whether individuals contracted the virus.”
In the study, U.S. residents completed a brief test of COVID-19 knowledge, which consisted of 13 true or false statements about the virus. True items included statements such as “Some individuals who have COVID-19/the coronavirus do not show any symptoms,” while false items included statements such as “Spraying chlorine on my body will protect me even if COVID-19/the coronavirus has already entered my system.” The participants also completed assessments for several other variables, including perceptions of the pandemic, faith in government, trust in scientists, conspiratorial ideation, and more.
Four months later, 2,120 participants contacted again and asked whether they had tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 infection or otherwise believed they had been sick with COVID-19. A total of 348 participants indicated that they had experienced COVID-19. The researchers found that the less knowledgeable the participants were about COVID-19, the more likely they were to have gotten sick.
In addition, greater trust and confidence in President Trump, greater trust in the federal government, and greater conspiratorial ideation were associated with an increased likelihood of contracting the virus. But the relationship between these variables appeared to be mediated by COVID knowledge. In other words, those with greater conspiratorial ideation tended to have reduced knowledge about the virus, which in turn was associated with a heightened risk of contracting it.
“There are many important findings from this research, but the most critical one may be related to misinformation regarding COVID-19. We had administered a brief quiz regarding the virus. Individuals with more accurate knowledge were far less likely to have contracted COVID-19,” Fazio told PsyPost.
“Moreover, additional analyses revealed that accurate knowledge was the primary mechanism mediating the impact of many other beliefs and personal characteristics on the likelihood of contracting the virus. For example, the more trust participants reported in then-President Trump, who had downplayed the severity of the pandemic, the less accurate knowledge they had about the virus, and the more likely they were to subsequently contract the virus. The reverse was true with respect to the extent that participants reported trust in scientists.”
The findings are in line with another longitudinal study, conducted in The Netherlands, which found that people who believed in conspiracy theories about COVID-19 were more likely to contract the virus.
The new findings also dovetail with another study, which surveyed 1,695 individuals from South Carolina. That study found that those who trusted science were more likely to report engaging in preventative behaviors, such as washing hands and wearing a mask. The opposite was true among those who approved of the way Trump was doing his job as president.
Other research has found that people with a poor understanding of quantitative information are more likely to endorse misinformation about COVID-19. Those who believe such misinformation, in turn, are less likely to engage in preventative behaviors.
“It would be fascinating to examine the consequences of correcting any misinformation that people had acquired regarding the virus,” Fazio added. “Whether changes in accurate knowledge results in changes in the likelihood of contracting the virus is an important question that needs to be addressed.”
The study, “Contracting COVID-19: a longitudinal investigation of the impact of beliefs and knowledge“, was published by Courtney A. Moore, Benjamin C. Ruisch, Javier A. Granados Samayoa, Shelby T. Boggs, Jesse T. Ladanyi, and Russell H. Fazio.