COMMENTARY

Why People Lie About COVID

F. Perry Wilson, MD, MSCE

Disclosures

October 11, 2022

Welcome to Impact Factor, your weekly dose of commentary on a new medical study. I'm Dr F. Perry Wilson of the Yale School of Medicine.

Have you ever lied about COVID-19?

Before you get upset, before the "how dare you," I want you to think carefully.

Did you have COVID-19 (or think you did) and not mention it to someone you were going to be with? Did you tell someone you were taking more COVID precautions than you really were? Did you tell someone you were vaccinated when you weren't? Have you avoided getting a COVID test even though you knew you should have?

A new study, appearing in JAMA Network Open, suggests that nearly half of people have lied about something to do with COVID. And those are just the people who admit it.

Researchers appreciated the fact that public health interventions in COVID are important but are only as good as the percentage of people who actually abide by them. So, they designed a survey to ask the questions that many people don't want to hear the answer to.

A total of 1733 participants — 80% of those invited — responded to the survey. By design, approximately one third of respondents (477) had already had COVID, one third (499) were vaccinated and not yet infected, and one third (509) were unvaccinated and not yet infected.

Of those surveyed, 41.6% admitted that they lied about COVID or didn't adhere to COVID guidelines — a conservative estimate, if you ask me.

Breaking down some of the results, about 20% of people who previously were infected with COVID said they didn't mention it when meeting with someone. A similar number said they didn't tell anyone when they were entering a public place. A bit more concerning to me, roughly 20% reported not disclosing their COVID-positive status when going to a healthcare provider's office.


 

About 10% of those who had not been vaccinated reported lying about their vaccination status. That's actually less than the 15% of vaccinated people who lied and told someone they weren't vaccinated.

About 17% of people lied about the need to quarantine, and many more broke quarantine rules.

The authors tried to see if certain personal characteristics predicted people who were more likely to lie about COVID-19–related issues. Turns out there was only one thing that predicted honesty: age.


 

Older people were more honest about their COVID status and COVID habits. Other factors — gender, education, race, political affiliation, COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs, and where you got your COVID information — did not seem to make much of a difference. Why are older people more honest? Because older people take COVID more seriously. And they should; COVID is more severe in older people.

The problem arises, of course, because people who are at lower risk for COVID complications interact with people at higher risk — and in those situations, honesty matters more.

On the other hand, isn't lying about COVID stuff inevitable? If you know that a positive test means you can't go to work, and not going to work means you won't get paid, might you not be more likely to lie about the test? Or not get the test at all?

The authors explored the reasons for dishonesty and they are fairly broad, ranging from the desire for life to feel normal (more than half of people who lied) to not believing that COVID was real (a whopping 30%). Some of the reasons for lying included:

  • Wanted life to feel normal (50%)

  • Freedom (45%)

  • It's no one's business (40%)

  • COVID isn't real (30%)

In the end, though, we need to realize that public health recommendations are not going to be universally followed, and people may tell us they are following them when, in fact, they are not.

What this adds is another datapoint to a trend we've seen across the course of the pandemic, a shift from collective to individual responsibility. If you can't be sure what others are doing in regard to COVID, you need to focus on protecting yourself. Perhaps that shift was inevitable. Doesn't mean we have to like it.

F. Perry Wilson, MD, MSCE, is an associate professor of medicine and director of Yale's Clinical and Translational Research Accelerator. His science communication work can be found in the Huffington Post, on NPR, and here on Medscape. He tweets @fperrywilson and hosts a repository of his communication work at www.methodsman.com.

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