One-third of people with COVID-19 lie about their symptoms, study shows

New research from Brock University shows those trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are up against an intriguing obstacle: people lying.

A new Brock University study shows people lie about having to isolate, and also about following guidelines

A new article from Brock University psychology researchers shows one-third of people with COVID-19 are likely to lie about their symptoms, or how much they've been following health protocols. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

New research from Brock University shows those trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are up against an intriguing obstacle: people lying.

A study from doctoral student Alison O'Connor and Angela Evans, associate professor in the psychology department, shows that at least one-third of the population with COVID-19 lied about having symptoms, and also about the amount that they stayed physically distant from others.

The team surveyed 451 Americans aged 20 to 82. Thirty-four per cent of people with the virus had denied having symptoms when others asked, and 55 per cent said they'd concealed their symptoms on some level.

And a quarter of all respondents said they lied about how much they were following health protocols. Those with COVID-19 were even more likely to lie about it.

O'Connor says this should act as a warning that the numbers we see are only part of the story. 

Alison O'Connor, a PhD student at Brock University, was the lead author on the study published in the Journal of Health Psychology. (Brock University)

"One of the consequences is the potential difficulty in accurately tracking the pandemic," she said. "It reminds us that these numbers and the data are dependent on people telling the truth."

O'Connor says in some cases, people who concealed symptoms were afraid of stigma and social judgment, especially if they didn't follow public health guidelines. People who'd concealed symptoms were also less judgmental of other people doing the same.

O'Connor says this shows that shaming people and creating a stigma results in less reliable public health data.

"It's important to not necessarily blame people who are concealing this information, but to understand the barriers that are there from preventing them from telling the truth."

The team conducted the surveys through Amazon in late April and early May. That's why the respondents were American, O'Connor said. The team is interested in doing a similar survey in Canada, although O'Connor said work through Evans's Social and Cognitive Development Lab shows the results would likely be similar.

That's true even in taking into account how politically charged the pandemic is in the U.S. O'Connor said she "can't rule out" that the political climate influenced the results, but there's no way to know for sure.

In every country, she said, "lying is a common social behaviour."

The research was published on Aug. 17 in the Journal of Health Psychology

Here are some other highlights:

  • 53 per cent of participants with COVID-19 denied needing to quarantine when asked by others.
  • Females were more likely than males to readily disclose health symptoms.
  • Older adults and those who were more community oriented, gauged by their scores on the Communal Orientation Scale, were more honest about their COVID-19 status and behaviours.
  • Most of the participants had a post-secondary education.

Evans says the results show that campaigns should focus on everyone being in this together.

"If we aren't honest about our symptoms and our social distancing behaviours, it will be difficult to keep COVID-19 positive numbers low until we find a vaccine," Evans said.

"Our honesty will help public health with contact tracing, reduce others' risks of interacting with us if we may be at risk, and in turn benefit society as a whole."


Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca