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I know why anti-vaxxers think the way they do — I believed Korean health disinformation for decades

Growing up in Korea, we were taught that we’d swell up and die from ‘fan death’ if we kept our fans on overnight, among other absurdities. Even when I left the country and learnt it had been government propaganda, I couldn’t stop believing it

Stacy Kim
New York
Friday 09 July 2021 18:06 BST

As a social science researcher in her fifties, I am ashamed to admit I only recently let go of my childhood fears that an electric fan could kill me in my sleep. I counsel my daughters to make choices based on data, yet catch myself passing down Korean superstitions about how sitting on cold surfaces can harm reproductive health. My irrational ways help explain why some are reluctant to get vaccinated and others are slow to unmask despite robust evidence confirming their safety. And my husband’s response to my failures in logic sheds light on how to help us all.

Growing up in Seoul in the 1970s, “fan death” was a widespread fear. It was common knowledge that sleeping with a fan could cause asphyxiation. We heard of incidents of it on the news and read the warning labels from manufacturers. Despite many humid summer nights, my family was never tempted to catch any Z’s aided by a cool breeze.

So, when I moved to the US for college and my first-year roommate climbed into bed leaving her fan spinning, I was dumbfounded. “Don’t you know you could die?” I said.

“What in the world are you talking about?” she responded.

“Your blood vessels will swell, causing you to stop breathing!”

“I’ve never heard of anything so absurd. You believe that?”

After some negotiation, we agreed that she could aim the fan toward her side of the room.

The next day, she told my boyfriend and they teased me. I answered his pointed questions and let her mock me. Finding it difficult to defend my position, I wanted them to drop the subject. I still believed fan death was a possibility, however remote.

Years later, I married said boyfriend. And, one hot evening, Kyle wanted to leave our small Vornado on. I considered turning it off as soon as he fell asleep, but I knew he would only wake up and turn it back on again. So, I started to plead.

“Are you kidding me? You still believe that rubbish?” he said.

“I know it’s irrational,” I replied, “but it really just makes me nervous. I don’t think I can fall asleep with it on.” By then, he knew me well enough and turned off the fan.

Surprisingly, he never spoke about it again. Even when he found an article in 2016 disproving my long-held belief, he simply handed it to me without so much as a “told you so”. The article suggested that fan death was conceived by the Korea’s dictatorial government to discourage electricity use. Kyle recognized that the strict military regimes of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan had a lingering hold on me, even though I refused to admit it.

I understood I had been misled. Yet it still took five more years for me to give it a try.

Intellectually, I know my problem is what researchers call the “continued misinformation effect.” In 1975, researchers Lee Ross, Mark Lepper, and Michael Hubbard found that students continued to believe that they were adept at picking out real suicide notes from fake ones, despite being told they were lied to about their ability. More recently, Rachel Leigh Greenspan and Elizabeth Loftus report, “Once a person has been exposed to misinformation, it can be extremely challenging to eliminate its effects fully and accurately. Indeed, even when misinformation is withdrawn, it can still continue to influence people.”

This would also explain why I found myself telling my younger daughter just last week to get up from the concrete floor of our terrace. Growing up, my mother, aunts and grandmother told me girls should never sit on cold surfaces as it would harm our female organs. My sixth-grade teacher instructed that any vaginal discharge was a sign we needed to keep our bodies warmer.

Again, it was in college when enlightenment came. Sitting in a lecture on human reproduction, I learned that vaginal discharge is a sign of fertility. Exasperated that my female elders led me astray, I called my mother. Along with surprise, she seemed relieved to know her body had been normal all along.

People who believe that vaccines contain tracking chips will not be quick to bare their upper arms if they must also be convinced people they trust lied to them. Facts won’t easily change the minds that recall stories from beloved Puerto Rican relatives who experienced forced sterilization by the US government. If doctors once espoused that Black people feel less pain, is it any wonder why some may be hesitant to get an injection or two? And if an opioid crisis among the working class of middle America was bolstered by healthcare professionals, can we feel angry that many who come from those same communities feel distrustful?

Thinking back, I appreciate that Kyle never humiliated or criticized me but accepted all of me. He disagreed yet stood by me as I sifted through fears and reshuffled truths. His patient silence was the compassion I needed.

When habitual thoughts prompted me to relay the old Korean warning to my daughter, I was lucky to catch her irritation. I realized I risked interrupting our fleeting time together gardening. “Never mind, don’t get up. You can sit there. Shall I tell you a silly old wives’ tale?”

A few nights ago, it was hot. I turned on the fan. As the room cooled, it was easier to snuggle up to Kyle. Perhaps the most effective way to change minds is to appeal to our common desire to belong and be loved. After a year of distancing, wouldn’t it be nice get closer?

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