Alison O’Connor is a PhD student in the Developmental Psychology program at Brock University. She is a member of the Social-Cognitive Development Lab under the supervision of Dr. Angela Evans. Alison’s research explores the development of truth- and lie-telling behaviours, how to promote honesty, and how individuals can detect deception. She is particularly interested in exploring lies about our health and the psychological function of these health-related lies.
Lying to conceal COVID-19 Information: Examining how often and why people lie
Alison O’Connor, Brock University, Canada
Angela Evans, Brock University, Canada
Many of our COVID-19 public health initiatives rely on citizens to be honest about their behaviors and symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic; therefore, it is problematic if citizens are concealing COVID-19 information. Prior to this pandemic, adults have been found to conceal information on a daily basis, including lies about one’s illnesses or health (DePaulo et al., 2004; Pachankis et al., 2015; Rush et al., 2016). However, research suggests that honesty generally increases with age (Ashton & Lee, 2016; Milojev & Sibley, 2017). Thus, although adults may be concealing health related information, this behaviour may change with age.
In a series of two studies, we explored the concealment of COVID-19 related behaviors (e.g., social distancing and symptoms). Study 1 tested a large international sample to understand the frequency of concealment and Study 2 tested a smaller sample of local Niagara residents to better understand the motivations behind telling COVID-19 related lies.
In Study 1, an international sample of 512 adults (Mage = 45.73, SD = 16.13, range = 20-82 years) were surveyed about their concealment of COVID-19 information. We found a concerning degree of concealment about COVID-19 behaviours (28% concealed their social distancing practices and 42% concealed having COVID-19 symptoms). Interestingly, as one’s communal orientation and age increased, concealment of physical distancing practices, FΔ (2, 505) = 76.63, p < .001, and of COVID-19 symptoms, FΔ (2, 110) = 12.26, p < .001, decreased. Additionally, as age increased, participants evaluated the concealment of COVID-19 information more harshly, t = 7.67, p < .001, B = -.027. These results suggest that while some adults are willing to lie about COVID-19 behaviours and symptoms, older adults are more likely to be honest about their pandemic behaviors.
In Study 2, we explored COVID-19 concealment in Niagara region, and, importantly, we explored why these lies may be told. A sample of adults (N = 30; Mage = 52.60, SD = 20.58, range = 18-80 years) were surveyed about the extent to which they have concealed COVID-19 information (e.g., social distancing, mask use). Similar rates of concealment of COVID-19 related behaviours were found (e.g., 30% lied about their social distancing practices). When asked why adults were concealing COVID-19 behaviors, various motivations emerged, with the most common being to allow one to do things (e.g., see grandchildren or see friends; 30%), to avoid social judgment and scrutiny from others (17%), and because they thought it was a harmless lie to tell (17%). Additionally, results trended towards a negative association between age and rates of concealment (r = -.314, p = .091), suggesting that rates of concealment decrease with age. Furthermore, increased age was also associated with taking the pandemic more seriously (r = .465, p = .010), perhaps motivating increased rates of honesty. These results help us to better understand the psychological motivations behind telling COVID-19 lies.
Taken together, these studies demonstrate that adults may indeed be concealing important COVID-19 information, but that older adults may be more honest compared to younger adults.