COVID Skepticism & The First Narrative Effect

Henk Kleynhans
7 min readJul 11, 2021


The First Narrative Effect: We tend to believe the first version of a story we hear.

“Stories” are the key to human survival.

Imagine being a young child, thousands of years ago, on the African plains. Sitting around the campfire, under the stars, while a wiry, ancient Elder is repeating the story of how he was attacked by a lion and lost his left eye. The old man describes in great detail the size and the shape and the mane of the lion. He animatedly walks around the fire in the manner of the lion, demonstrating how it crawled through the grass, the teeth, the roar, the attack! You are riveted. You’ve heard the story many times before, yet every time you experience the same hair-raising sensation on your neck and you jump every time the old man animatedly pounces across the fire with a Roar! With every telling, the lion becomes more real in your mind, though you’ve never seen a lion before, and the old man’s finger drawings in the sand could just as well be a water buffalo with large teeth and a mane of hair.

This story has a purpose… one day, as you’re walking through the savannah, you spot a lion from a distance. You’d never seen one before, but you know immediately what it is and how dangerous it is. You slap your hand over your left eye and you hurriedly retreat back to the safety of your tribe.

What would happen if you had chosen to ignore the story from the old man? Simple: you’d likely get eaten and your DNA wouldn’t be passed on to any descendants. For this reason, humans are wired to believe stories told by their elders.

But what happens if we hear a contradictory story? What if someone whispered in your ear that the lion was harmless and that the old man is going senile and you shouldn’t listen to him? And, in fact, you should get as close as possible to a lion and bang your hands on your chest to show him who’s boss!

Today, the lion is COVID or, depending on your perspective, the lion is a COVID vaccine. On the one hand, you’re told that COVID could kill you, and you should get vaccinated. On the other, you may have heard that COVID is a hoax, and that the bigger danger is being injected with a vaccine. And typically the story about the dangers of COVID comes from the news media, whereas the story of the vaccine dangers is coming from your friends and your parents, often accompanied by videos of charismatic speakers telling stories that ‘just make sense’.

Who should you believe? The trouble is this: you are literally hardwired to believe stories that take a certain form. Stories that are told by your ‘elders’, that tap into your fear response, that are anecdotal, as opposed to news reports providing statistics about people you don’t personally know.

Stories about people we personally know are always more powerful than statistics or mentions of unidentified teenagers in ICU. I remember one COVID ‘skeptic’ in Australia asking: “How many people do you personally know who died from COVID?”, with the inference that COVID is nothing serious. But how many people do you know who died in car accidents since the start of the pandemic? Yet, no one disputes that car crashes are still ‘real’ and do happen, regardless of whether you personally know anyone.

More people are killed by toasters each year than by sharks, yet the story of the danger of the shark is a more powerful story than the danger of toaster. We also feel like we have more control over the toaster, whereas the shark is a total unknown to anyone but a SCUBA diver who has spent hours underwater swimming comfortably with sharks.

So how can you ‘vaccinate’ yourself against false information, and the simple, yet powerful stories of false prophets?

The first step is to accept that you are more likely to believe information in the form of stories, as you would not have existed today if it wasn’t in your DNA. In addition, we are wired to believe stories from “elders” even when these stories aren’t riveting. A child that ignores a parent’s warning of imminent death has a lower chance of their DNA propagating! “Don’t walk near that cliff, you’ll break your neck!”

Once you know that you’re susceptible to stories told in certain ways, by certain people, you can start identifying when clever storytelling is being used to manipulate you. There’s an entire industry built around this manipulation, called ‘marketing’, and you are being manipulated all the time. Just look at your browser search history or your credit card statement, and see if you’ll be able to recall and identify the stories that led you to those actions. The most powerful form of marketing (or manipulation) is “Word of Mouth”, so pay special attention to stories that are leveraging your friends and family to have a stronger chance of being ‘passed on’.

The second step is to know that, just as there is an evolutionary benefit to believing stories, there is also an evolutionary benefit to telling stories! That wiry old man telling his story about the lion received plenty of kudos from his tribe, and may have sired many, many children. Good storytellers are revered, and the old man kept improving his lion attack story and adding small embellishments to make it increasingly more captivating. And as a group, his tribe would even encourage this! If another elder who was present at the lion attack was to call him out for some factual inaccuracies, the rest of his tribe is likely to take the side of the storyteller over the naysayer. Those who “fuck up a good story with the facts” can quickly be ostracised. And so the DNA of good storytellers gets widely propagated. Take for example the prophets, gurus and founders of religion who made up fantastical stories, like Joseph Smith, who married had 40 wives.

Even when we simply ‘pass on’ or share someone else’s story, we stand to benefit from the same recognition, albeit on a smaller scale, as the original storyteller. And of course, if the story is somewhat controversial, even those who don’t believe it, are likely to engage with us, giving us a supply of social connection that we may be missing while weathering yet another lockdown.

Once we understand this entirely normal, advantageous, human behaviour, we can catch ourselves when it no longer serves us.

So if we know we are hardwired to believe, tell and share stories, what could we do instead? In general, but in particular when it comes to COVID? There are really only two things:

A) become an expert yourself — do a biological science degree, with a Ph.D. In virology and work in a vaccine lab designing vaccines from scratch. Spend time looking at viruses under a microscope (it’s easier for people to believe false information when it comes to things ‘unseen’, whether viruses, vaccines, or 5G signals) With a deep, intuitive understanding of human physiology and vaccine technology, you’re less likely to believe charismatic storytellers. (For a tiny glimpse into just one of the many physiological processes you’ll learn to understand deeply, watch this short video on mRNA translation)

B) Learn what is meant by “Scientific Consensus” and how it is arrived at. Learn the basic fundamentals of how scientists do research and how scientists constantly ‘argue’ using data and experiments, and that, when a vast majority of scientists agree on something, it is not a conspiracy, it is because they’re right. (Watch this brilliant TED talk on “Why We Should Trust Scientists”:

Of course, option A is unrealistic for most, but how could we embrace option B when we’re simply not hardwired to trust scientists the same way we trust false prophets?

Let me give an (old) example: if you go to a 100 doctors, and 99 of them tell you you have diabetes, but one of them says you don’t, do you go with the 99? Or with the one? You’d likely go with the 99!

Of course, that one doctor that says you don’t have diabetes, may be an excellent storyteller. She basically has to be a great storyteller, and may be a popular speaker on Fox News for her controversial views. Of course, Fox News will have someone from “mainstream science” presenting the 99%, but given equal airtime, viewers may believe that there is a roughly 50/50 divide between what scientists think.

Fortunately, there is increasing pressure on media platforms to not give space to quacks and misinformation, so they start putting warning labels on content (Facebook, Twitter) and removing false, misleading, and dangerous information (YouTube).

Unfortunately, this now gives a powerful story for the quack about how they were ‘censored’ and how the ‘truth’ is being suppressed. A powerful story that we are hardwired, in our DNA, to a) believe (the lion is now the mainstream media) and b) spread (to help protect our loved ones against this lion). And if Facebook calls us out, our belief becomes even stronger, we shout ‘censorship!’ and switch to Telegram.

Furthermore, if only a hypothetical 0.01% of doctors were quacks, that would still mean thousands of quacks (like Michael Yeadon) spreading interesting, but false, stories.

So go with the 99% (in this case the 99.999+%): believe the WHO, the CDC, the NHI — I know they’re boring and it’s hard to relate to these bodies of anonymous, faceless scientists who suck at storytelling. But know that behind the scenes are people who quietly dedicate their lives to improving the fate of humanity. People like you and me, many of whom are driven to save lives because of having deep, personal experience of suffering and death. People like Dr Maurice Hilleman, who developed the Mumps vaccine after his daughter contracted Mumps. People like Prof Sarah Gilbert: “She’s gonna hate it, absolutely hate it,” says her friend, biochemist Dr Anne Moore. “I mean, Sarah is the person in the room who does not want to be in the limelight.”

They do this quietly because when they speak up, they are often relentlessly attacked by quacks and internet trolls — they don’t have time for this, so they go back to doing research and saving lives, one research study at a time.

They might lack the charisma, but they’re still right.

Listen to them, and when your own family members start spreading false information, simply share the latest advice from the WHO (it changes over time, and that’s a good thing), and maybe even this rambling post…



Henk Kleynhans

Built Wi-Fi networks in Africa, lobbied governments on spectrum reform, connected the Dalai Lama to Desmond Tutu. Head of Product (Insurance)