False or misleading information about COVID-19 spread seemingly as fast as the disease itself. How bad is the problem?
A new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly a third of adult Americans believed at least four of eight false statements about COVID-19 or vaccines for the disease (e.g., “The government is exaggerating the number of COVID-19 deaths”; “The COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to cause infertility”). Almost half of those surveyed believed one to three of the false statements were plausible.
This has contributed to rates of illness and death in the United States that are far higher than they should be, as people refuse to wear masks or get vaccinated.
Who tends to believe in fake or misleading news about COVID-19? Demographic factors like age and education play a role; so does political affiliation, with Republicans vastly more likely than Democrats to believe wrong information about the pandemic.
But there is one more factor that is gaining attention from researchers: intellectual humility.
How humility and health can go together
Intellectual humility is the “awareness of one’s fallibility,” writes Duke University researcher Mark Leary. “People who are intellectually humble know that their beliefs, opinions, and viewpoints are fallible because they realize that the evidence on which their beliefs are based could be limited or flawed or that they may not have the expertise or ability to understand and evaluate the evidence.”
A series of studies recently published in Social Psychological and Personality Science examined how people with varying levels of intellectual humility responded to misleading headlines about COVID-19. Across three studies, the findings paint a clear picture: When presented with misinformation about COVID-19, people higher in intellectual humility are more likely to investigate further.
In the first two studies, researchers presented a total of 700 participants with fabricated headlines about COVID-19 that were ostensibly from news articles (e.g., “Sipping water every 15 minutes prevents a coronavirus infection,” “Coronavirus cases keep rising; Social distancing is not working”). Then, participants reported whether they’d try to verify the information in the headline by, for example, fact-checking the claims, spending more time learning about the source, or even just reading the entire article. The researchers found that people higher in intellectual humility were more likely to say they would try to find out if the headline were true.
The final study went one step further by measuring people’s behavior. Researchers showed 600 participants a fabricated news headline (e.g., “U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration warns that mask wearing can be dangerous and ineffective”), with the option to open a new tab in their internet browser to “learn more about this article.” They found the same pattern of results as in the previous studies: People higher in intellectual humility were more likely to open the tab to learn more about the fabricated news.
For obvious reasons, this matters during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rampant mis- and dis-information are commonly cited causes for vaccine hesitancy in the United States, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe and North America. (Disinformation is fake news intentionally spread by bad-faith actors; misinformation is the result of mistakes in thinking or research.)
As vaccines became available earlier in the year, researchers at Texas A&M University tested 351 participants for intellectual humility and measured their attitudes toward vaccination. They found that people higher in intellectual humility have more positive attitudes toward the vaccines and are more likely to say they intend to get the jab. Importantly, this is true even when accounting for the effect of factors like education and political orientation.
That might be good news: There’s not much we can do about people’s education or politics as the pandemic rages on—but we can act now to help each other cultivate intellectual humility when learning about COVID-19.
Cultivating humility in the pandemic
So, how do you cultivate intellectual humility in the face of a global pandemic?
The core of intellectual humility is recognizing your own limitations as a human being, such as your training and education, or the bias created by your emotions.
If something “feels” true to you, then you might ask: Why might that be the case? For example, it is very understandable why we might seek out miracle preventatives or cures for COVID-19, like taking hydroxychloroquine or gargling salt water, because the wish for the pandemic to be over or easily defeated can be much stronger than the need to squarely face the dire reality of the situation. Scapegoating other people for the pandemic also contains a strong emotional appeal, since it is more satisfying to be angry at other people than at a disease that doesn’t know you exist. One study found that depression and anxiety increased the likelihood that we’ll believe false information about COVID-19.
Thus, the first question we might ask ourselves when hearing new information is this one: Does the message seem designed to appeal to my emotions? And are those emotions leading me to believe things that might not be true?
If so, then you might try a technique called “self-distancing,” which basically involves trying to look at yourself from the outside. According to research, people who are able to do this while discussing a difficult event make better sense of their own reactions and are less emotionally distressed. In a paper published in 2011, psychologists Ethan Kross and Igor Grossman found that self-distancing was an effective way of cultivating intellectual humility.
Another key to intellectual humility, suggests Leary, is simply being patient as you gather information, keeping an open mind until you need to act.
“The brain evolved the capacity to think in order to guide our behavior in adaptive ways,” says Leary. “If we assume that our understanding of almost anything, including COVID, improves over time, then there’s no reason to draw a firm conclusion until we need to act on it. Then, we go with the best information—from the most credible sources—that we have.”
You can also search public-health messages themselves for humility. In the article “11 Questions to Ask About COVID-19 Research,” Greater Good’s editors ask readers to look for signs of intellectual humility in communications about new pandemic insights: Do researchers, journalists, and politicians acknowledge limitations and entertain alternative explanations? Do they reference preceding findings? Are journalists and politicians, or even scientists, possibly overstating the result? If the message seems humble, it might be more reliable than other, more grandiose or emotional messages about COVID-19.
Indeed, the formula of scientific papers is designed to reflect humility, as the authors are forced to explain what the study didn’t do and couldn’t find out, and why their findings could be wrong. In a global pandemic, that’s a formula we might all try to follow.