It’s not whacky myths about hydroxychloroquine or genetic engineering most of us need to worry about. It’s seductive myths grounded in normal patterns of human thinking that are getting so many Americans killed in the COVID-19 pandemic.
By Brett Pelham, PhD
The United States has a tragically high rate of COVID-19 deaths. We are making a lot of deadly mistakes. Here are four of the most dangerous myths that continue to spread this deadly disease. These myths are all grounded in rules of thumb that are sometimes useful. But when a pandemic is at work, what is sometimes useful can become deadly.
Myth 1: It Won’t Happen to Me. One well-documented bias that contributes to the U.S. COVID-19 disaster is overconfidence — the tendency to be more confident than correct. Overconfidence is especially pronounced in people who are just beginning to learn about a topic. That’s most Americans, of course (check out the Dunning-Kruger effect for details). Overconfidence is also exaggerated (a) in children, teens, and young adults and (b) in men. Beginning with youth, youth is a time of tremendous optimism and overconfidence. One reason for this is that the part of the human brain that weighs risks against benefits (the prefrontal cortex) does not mature until age 25. How many times have you seen a group of unrelated 15-year-olds blatantly violating social distancing rules? How many times have you seen their parents doing the same?
To make matters worse, the 49% of the human population known as men are brimming with overconfidence. In tasks as diverse as gambling, driving, self-evaluation, and predicting one’s success on unfamiliar tasks, men are more overconfident than women. Psychologist David Smith has shown that even male monkeys are more overconfident than are female monkeys. To see how this applies to COVID-19, ask yourself (a) which gender is much more likely than the other to forego wearing the face masks that reduce COVID-19 transmission and (b) which gender has a higher COVID death rate. Here’s a clue: It’s not women.
Myth 2: It Won’t Happen in the Summer. I fell prey to this myth myself when I assumed, in March of 2020, that COVID-19 infection rates would follow exactly the same seasonal pattern as the common cold. After all, one family of cold-causing viruses is coronaviruses. Further, rates of the common cold decrease greatly in the summer. But I was falling prey to the representativeness heuristic. This is assuming that two things that resemble one another (say, because they have a similar name or appearance) share many other properties. Many stereotypes obey this rule of thumb. But someone forgot to tell the novel coronavirus to be exactly like its distant cousins. We do not yet know if, or to what degree, the novel coronavirus differs from the common cold in its seasonality. Nationwide, COVID-19 deaths dropped roughly 50% from April to May. Then they dropped another 50% from May to June. That seemed seasonal. But then they increased by about 25% from June to July, and they do not appear to be letting up in August. This does not wholly rule out seasonality. But it’s not as simple as we might have hoped. Complicating things further, seasonality is strongly connected with time spent indoors. This brings us to our third myth.
Myth 3: Ignoring the Dangers of Crowded Indoor Spaces. Most viruses like cool, dry air, and the novel coronavirus is probably no exception. Even more important, experts believe that the primary method of COVID-19 transmission is breathing in the tiny particles of moisture that an infected person sneezes or exhales. This means it’s not ever very safe to be in a crowded indoor place with lots of strangers. Physical distancing and mask wearing continue to be crucial to curtailing the spread of COVID-19. And being outdoors is much, much safer than being indoors. Notice that the connection between time spent indoors and seasonality is complex. Even if warm weather is no friend to COVID-19, this does not mean that very hot weather is COVID-19’s sworn enemy. In very hot places like Florida, Texas, and Arizona — which enjoyed low COVID-19 infection rates in the spring of 2020 — rates shot up in the summer — which is when people begin to stay inside because of the oppressive heat.
Myth 4: My Halloween Mask Will Protect Me. You didn’t really think your Halloween mask would protect you. But studies show that all masks are not created equal. Whereas properly-worn medical (N95) masks reduce transmission, homemade masks vary from those that are arguably a little better than N95 masks to those that are worse than no mask at all. Two- or three-layer cotton masks that fit the face snugly are excellent. This seems to include snug fitting, double-layered masks made from t-shirts. But a single layer of t-shirt cotton only stops about 40% of the moisture people expel when talking or breathing. Moving up to a double-layer of t-shirt cotton reduces deadly spray by an impressive 98%.
In contrast, the thin, light gaiters that became so popular in the summer of 2020 seem to be even worse than wearing no mask at all. Gaiters became popular, in part, because they are comfortable. But gaiters, like bandanas, are comfortable because there is little to them. This means that they merely break up expelled moisture into smaller specks — so it floats in the air longer than it would with no mask. It would be hard to create a more harmful product. This is another distressing example of the representativeness heuristic at work. Gaiters look a lot like some of the other masks that are effective weapons against COVD-19. But gaiters are a public health disaster.
These are not the only myths about COVID-19. To mention a few others, children are not immune to COVID-19, and people who have it do not always feel or look sick. Further, valuing immediate economic growth — or face to face education — over human life will not magically make COVID-19 less deadly. The only proven path to fighting COVID-19 includes things like social distancing, good masks, testing, and contact tracing. Some have expressed distrust over scientific advice about COVID-19 because it keeps changing. But that’s science. Scientific knowledge of the unknown evolves as we discard and update incorrect ideas. This refinement process isn’t done yet, but it is the best chance we have against the deadly enemy known as COVID-19.