By Sara Degli Esposti and Turkay Nefes, CSIC
If you believe that powerful people intentionally produced the coronavirus epidemic[i] you are not alone: in fact some surveys suggest one in four people in the US think the same. Many Americans also agree with those who think 5G technology is responsible for the spreading of SARS-Cov-2, that Stella Immanuel, who said that hydroxychloroquine is the cure to Covid19, is more credible than Dr Anthony Fauci and the American Medical Association, and that the US government is partly run by non-human reptilians. Afterall, believing in that a bunch of powerful people (the conspirators) are acting in secret for their own benefit against the interest of the people, people like you, is such a reasonable and powerful explanation and there is significant evidence confirming it! Increasingly, these conspiracy-based views are evident across Europe and more globally as well.
Conspiracy theories are powerful because they offer a very vague and, thus, flexible and adaptable causal explanation that can work well in many circumstances. For example, it fits well when we try to explain global warfare and geopolitical dynamics we know nothing about. Conspiracy theories are flexible in nature because the role of the conspirator can always be assigned to the group we dislike the most. For example, when key people in the United States government accuse the Chinese government of attempting to hack the research groups working on Covid-19 (BBC 2020)[ii], it can be used to say that the Chinese government is conspiring against the world, or it can equally be said that the American government is making up this story to cover other things they don’t want you to know.
People can interpret the same message in opposite ways depending on their previous beliefs. We have a general tendency to seek out, favourably evaluate, and preferentially remember information that is congruent with our existing attitudes and beliefs, while being distrustful of evidence that runs counter to one’s attitudes and beliefs. The observation that individuals prefer consonant cognitions, developed as part of the theory of cognitive dissonance (Festinger 1957)[iii] is indicative of an important idea called “selective exposure”. Selective exposure refers to the act of choosing to read or view belief-consistent information over belief-inconsistent information (when given the choice). In simple terms, everyone has a tendency to prefer communication channels and retain information that confirms what they already know. In the digital environment this tendency is reinforced by automated recommendation systems that may push us into filter bubbles or informational cocoons.
The problem with filter bubbles is that decision-making is more likely to be flawed when individuals only select and retain information that are compatible with their existing worldview. However, these can be inconsistent with (most) empirical evidence and (most) expert interpretations. The problem becomes especially acute when people are looking for information to make informed decisions. In health decision-making and in the adoption of recommended behaviours[iv], seeking and acquiring accurate information is very relevant.
When conspiracy theories are applied to scientific results, people may be misguided and interpret information in the wrong way. Scientific misinformation produced as part of these wrong interpretations may have widespread and detrimental effects on the society. Previous studies on the relationship between conspiracy theories and scientific knowledge have investigated climate change (e.g., Douglas, and Sutton 2015; Lewandowsky et al., 2015)[v], AIDS (the acquired immune deficiency syndrome) (e.g. Ford et al., 2012; Hogg et al., 2015),[vi] and vaccination (e.g. Jolley, and Douglas 2014).[vii] All of them warn about the harmful impact of conspiracy theories. Jolley and Douglas (2014) found that conspiracy theories about climate change lower people’s intention to reduce carbon print.[viii] Conspiracy beliefs about AIDS seem to constitute a barrier to prevention, and are associated with increased odds for having unprotected intercourse (Bogart, and Thorburn 2005; Grebe, and Natrass 2011)[ix] and non-adherence with medical treatment (Bogart et al., 2010).[x] Moreover, Jolley and Douglas (2014) provided evidence that people show less intention to get vaccinated if they were exposed to material supporting anti-vaccination conspiracy theories.[xi]
So, who is more vulnerable to conspiracy theories? It seems that people who tend to adopt conspiratorial thinking show psychological traits such as delusional ideation (Dagnall et al 2015)[xii], boredom proneness (Brotherton, and Eser 2015)[xiii], and stress (Swami et al 2016)[xiv]. Uscinski and co-authors (2020)[xv] reported that general conspiratorial thinking, along with the psychological predisposition to reject authoritative information (denialism) and partisan motivations, are the most significant predictors of conspiracy beliefs about Covid-19. These findings are consistent to those of other studies, which show partisanship and ideological motivations along with conspiracy theories are statistically significant factors explaining climate science denial (Lewandowsky, Oberauer, and Gignac 2013; Uscinski, and Olivella 2017).[xvi] Lobato and co-authors (2014)[xvii] present evidence of a significant overlap among university students between believing in paranormal, conspiracy theories and pseudoscience claims in their study on the association of epistemically unwarranted beliefs. Some scholars even deem the spreading of conspiracy theories as a cultural phenomenon. In their view, conspiracy beliefs respond to a need. The need to make sense of and react to a complex social and political reality when searching of explanations[xviii]. Other scholars see conspiracy theories more as irrational accounts, which signal social or political pathologies of marginal groups and the prevention of these groups from understanding the nature of events[xix].
Endorsing conspiratorial views is associated with political and institutional mistrust and, thus, with social instability[xx]. Other academic studies foreground additional negative effects such as: lower levels of prosocial behaviour (van der Linden 2015)[xxi] and depoliticisation (Butler, Koopman, and Zimbardo 1995; Fenster 1999);[xxii] justification of intergroup hatred (Cohn 2005)[xxiii] and damages to internal organisational dynamics and co-workers’ cooperation (Van Prooijen, and De Vries 2016);[xxiv] and lower levels of trust in science and in the government (Bogart, and Thorburn 2015; Einstein, and Glick 2015)[xxv]. However, there are a few studies that identified positive consequences of conspiracy theories (e.g. Newheiser, Farias, and Tausch 2011).[xxvi] One of which is Roisman (2006)[xxvii], who argues that a rhetoric of conspiracy helped Athenians in Ancient Greece through the externalisation of their enemies. Typically, it is not very good sign for a State to have a large proportion of its citizens believing that a bunch of powerful conspirators is acting against their interest – whether they are reptilians or not!
Considering the global impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the emergence of conspiracy theories around it (Pinsker 2020),[xxviii] it is important to recognise and understand the mechanics of conspiratorial thinking in order to limit its spreading. Goertzel (2010, 494)[xxix] stated that conspiracy theories could lead to tragic consequences for society by undermining the credibility of sciences, as they “can be used as a rhetorical device to appeal to the emotions of a significant public.” He recommended that scientists should avoid discussions with conspiracy theorists and be aware of best practices in fighting misinformation.
When correcting inaccurate scientific beliefs, it is important to provide factual alternatives to the inaccurate information we want retracted. More good advice is to avoid repeating the content of inaccurate messages to minimise detrimental memory and retrieval effects. A good counter-misinformation strategy is to offer factual alternatives to misinformation, especially alternative causal explanations of the event to fill the gap left by the misinformation. Additionally, fostering scepticism and leading people towards self-affirming corrections by means of educational tools for refuting misinformation are good strategies. Warnings at the time of the initial exposure to misinformation is also useful (Lewandowsky, Ecker, Seifert, Schwarz, & Cook. 2012).[xxx] Scepticism can reduce misinformation effects, as it leads to more cognitive resources being allocated to the task of weighing up the veracity of both the misinformation and the correction. The alternative explanation must be plausible, account for the important causal qualities in the initial report, and, ideally, explain why the misinformation was thought to be correct in the first place. These are the starting points to reducing conspiratorial tendencies and help reinforce potentials for a well-informed public.
[ii] “Coronavirus: US Accuses China of Hacking Coronavirus Research.” BBC, May 14, 2020.
[iv] Lee, M., Ju, Y., & You, M. (2019). “The Effects of Social Determinants on Public Health Emergency Preparedness Mediated by Health Communication: The 2015 MERS Outbreak in South Korea”. Health communication, 1-11.
[v] Karen Douglas and Robbie Sutton. “Climate Change: Why the Conspiracy Theories are Dangerous.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 71, no. 2 (2015): 98–106; Stephan Lewandowsky, John Cook, Klaus Oberauer, Scott Brophy, Elisabeth Lloyd, and Michael Marriott. “Recurrent Fury: Conspiratorial Discourse in the Blogosphere Triggered by Research on the Role of Conspiracist Ideation in Climate Denial.” Journal of Social and Political Psychology 3, no.1 (2015): 142–78.
[vi] Chandra Ford, Steven Wallace, Peter Newman, Sung-Jae Lee, and William Cunningham. “Belief in AIDS-Related Conspiracy Theories and Mistrust in the Government: Relationship with HIV Testing among at-risk Older Adults.” The Gerontologist 53, no. 6 (2013): 973–84; Robert Hogg, Bosisiwe Nkala, Janan Dietrich, Alexandra Collins, Kalysha Closson, Zishan Cui, Steve Kanters, Jason Chia, Bernard Barhafuma, Alexis Palmer, Angela Kaida, Glenda Gray and Carrie Miller. “Conspiracy Beliefs and Knowledge about HIV Origins among Adolescents in Soweto. South Africa.” PLOS ONE 12, no. 2 (2017), e0165087.
[vii] Daniel Jolley and Karen Douglas. “The Effects of Anti-vaccine Conspiracy Theories on Vaccination Intentions.” PLoS ONE 9, no. 2 (2014), e89177.
[viii] Daniel Jolley and Karen Douglas. “The Social Consequences of Conspiracism: Exposure to Conspiracy Theories Decreases Intentions to Engage in Politics and to Reduce One’s Carbon Footprint.” British Journal of Psychology 105, no. 1 (2014): 35–56.
[ix] Laura Bogart and Sheryl Thorburn. “Are HIV/AIDS Conspiracy Beliefs a Barrier to HIV Prevention among African Americans?” Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes 38, no. 2 (2005): 213–8; Eduard Grebe, and Nicoli Nattrass. “AIDS Conspiracy Beliefs and Unsafe Sex in Cape Town.” AIDS and Behavior 16, no. (2012): 761–73.
[x] Laura Bogart, Glenn Wagner, Frank Galvan, and Denedria Banks. “Conspiracy Beliefs about HIV are Related to Antiretroviral Treatment Nonadherence among African American Men with HIV.” Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes 53, no. 5 (2010), 648–55.
[xi] Daniel Jolley and Karen Douglas. “The Effects of Anti-vaccine Conspiracy Theories on Vaccination Intentions.” PLoS ONE 9, no. 2 (2014), e89177.
[xii] Neil Dagnall, Kenneth Drinkwater, Andrew Parker, Andrew Denovan, and Megan Parton. “Conspiracy Theory and Cognitive Style: A Worldview.” Frontiers in Psychology 6, (February 2015): 1-9.
[xiii] Rob Brotherton and Silan Eser. “Bored to Fears: Boredom Proneness, Paranoia, and Conspiracy Theories.” Personality and Individual Differences 80, no. (July 2015): 1–5.
[xiv] Viren Swami, Adrian Furnham, Nina Smyth, Laura Weis, Alixe Lay, Angela Clow. “Putting the Stress on Conspiracy Theories: Examining Associations between Psychological Stress, Anxiety, and Belief in Conspiracy Theories.” Personality and Individual Differences 99, (September 2016): 72–76.
[xv] Joseph Uscinski, Adam Enders, Casey Klofstad, Michelle Seelig, John Funchion, Caleb Everett, Stephan Wuchty, Kamal Premaratne, and Manohar Purthi. (2020) “Why Do People Believe COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories?” The Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review 1, (2020).
[xvi] Stephan Lewandowsky, Gilles Gignac, and Klaus Oberauer. “The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science.” PLoS ONE 8, no. 10 (2013), e75637; Joseph Uscinski, and Santiago Olivella. (2017). “The Conditional Effect of Conspiracy Thinking on Attitudes toward Climate Change.” Research & Politics (2017): 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053168017743105
[xvii] Emilio Lobato, Jorge Mendoza, Valerie Sims, and Matthew. “Examining the Relationship Between Conspiracy Theories, Paranormal Beliefs, and Pseudoscience Acceptance Among a University Population.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 28, no. 5 (2014): 617–25.
[xviii] Peter Knight, Conspiracy Culture: From the Kennedy Assassination to the X-Files (London: Routledge, 2000).
[xix] Jovan Byford, Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Rob Brotherton, Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (London: Bloomsbury, 2015
[xx] Turkay Salim Nefes. “The Impacts of the Turkish Government’s Conspiratorial Framing about the Gezi Park Protests.” Social Movement Studies 16, no. 5 (2017): 610-22; Turkay Salim Nefes. ‘Scrutinizing impacts of conspiracy theories on readers’ political views: a rational choice perspective on anti-Semitic rhetoric in Turkey’, British Journal of Sociology 66, no. 3 (2015): 557-75; Turkay Salim Nefes. “Rationale of Conspiracy Theorizing: Who Shot the President Chen Shui-bian?” Rationality and Society 26, no. 3 (2014): 373-94.
[xxi] Sander van der Linden S “The Conspiracy-effect: Exposure to Conspiracy Theories (about Global Warming) Decreases Pro-social Behavior and Science Acceptance.” Personality and Individual Differences 87, (2015): 171–3.
[xxii] Lisa Butler, Cheryl Koopman, and Philip Zimbardo. “The Psychological Impact of Viewing the Film “JFK”: Emotions, Beliefs, and Political Behavioural Intentions.” Political Psychology 16, no. 2 (1995): 237-57; Mark Fenster, Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).
[xxiii] Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of Elders of Zion (London: Serif, 2005).
[xxiv] Jan-Willem van Prooijen, and Reinout de Vries. “Organizational Conspiracy Beliefs: Implications for Leadership Styles and Employee Outcomes.” Journal of Business and Psychology 31, (2016): 479-91.
[xxv] Laura Bogart and Sheryl Thorburn. “Are HIV/AIDS Conspiracy Beliefs a Barrier to HIV Prevention among African Americans?” Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes 38, no. 2 (2005): 213–8; Katherine Einstein KL and David Glick. “Do I think BLS Data are BS? The Consequences of Conspiracy Theories.” Political Behaviour 37, no. 3 (2015): 679–701.
[xxvi] Anna-Kaisa Newheiser, Miguel Farias, Nicole Tausch. “The Functional Nature of Conspiracy Beliefs: Examining the Underpinnings of Belief in the Da Vinci Code Conspiracy.” Personality and Individual Differences 51, (2011): 1007–11.
[xxviii] Joe Pinsker. “If Someone Shares the ‘Plandemic’ Video, How Should You Respond?” The Atlantic, May 9, 2020.
[xxx] Lewandowsky, Stephan, Ullrich KH Ecker, Colleen M Seifert, Norbert Schwarz, and John Cook. 2012. ‘Misinformation and its correction: Continued influence and successful debiasing‘, Psychological science in the public interest, 13: 106-31.