Since the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, a growing number of conspiracy theories about the virus’ origins, effects, and cure have appealed to an anxious audience looking for answers. While some conspiracy theories can be harmless, they’ve also been associated with radicalization of fringe groups. And, in the case of the new coronavirus, they may create a real public health hazard: Research by University of Oxford psychologists has suggested that people who believe conspiracy theories are less likely to follow social distancing measures and may be less likely to get an eventual vaccine.
“Conspiracy theories contribute to an increasing pollution of the information environment, a distrust of expertise, scientists, and the very idea of truth,” says Peter Knight, Ph.D., a professor of American studies at Manchester University who researches conspiracy theories, tells SELF.
In other moments in time, you may have been able to just agree to disagree with friends or family members who hold strong beliefs that are completely unsubstantiated. But when those beliefs could put their health—and the health of others—in danger, it might seem impossible (not to mention negligent) to just let it go. We talked to experts with a specific focus on conspiracy theories to find out how to handle this very unique situation we’re in.
What makes us prone to believing conspiracy theories?
There’s nothing new about conspiracy theories, and they’re not unique to the pandemic. So how do they start, and why are they so believable?
Some researchers argue that the human brain is hardwired to see potentially dangerous patterns as an evolutionary survival advantage, although many experts don’t believe there’s enough evidence to back up this concept. It could just be possible that a conspiracy theory gives us an explanation when we’re craving one—and if that explanation happens to reinforce our world view, even better.
It’s also possible that a region’s specific culture can play a role in the kinds of conspiracy theories that take hold. For instance, in the U.S., American ideals of egalitarianism and individualism, a distrust of elites, and a fear of outsiders can feed conspiratorial thinking. “Anything that encroaches on that could be seen as a conspiracy,” says Knight. That doesn’t mean Americans are necessarily more susceptible to conspiracy theories. “Every country’s culture contributes to the theories their citizens believe in,” says Joseph Uscinski, Ph.D., an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami and a recognized expert in conspiracy theories, tells SELF.
No matter where you live, experts who study conspiracy theories say a few factors may encourage conspiratorial thinking:
Having a conspiratorial worldview
Plenty of research suggests that certain people have a psychological predisposition to believing conspiracy theories, though there isn’t enough convincing evidence to pin it to one specific psychological characteristic. “People who generally explain events in the world with conspiracies are more likely to believe any one theory,” Joanne Miller, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Delaware department of political science who studies conspiracy theorists, tells SELF. Conspiracy theories may be especially attractive for people who feel powerless, as they create a sense of identity, belonging, and being in-the-know. “Somehow the rest of the world missed this, but you, sitting behind your computer, put the pieces together,” says Knight.
Needing to explain complex or scary events
Research suggests that conspiracy theories provide a simple explanation to threatening, uncertain, and complex events that undermine our sense of control. “That can make us connect dots that shouldn’t be connected,” says Miller.