Written by: Dr Lee Copping, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Centre for Applied Psychological Science, Cognition and Decision-Making theme.
While the media focus on the COVID-19 pandemic might be winding down, researchers interested in its impact still have the formidable task of trying to explain just what happened from the dawn of 2020 onwards. An extra-terrestrial observing Earth during this time might well ask whether humans actually have a sense of self-preservation in the face of a crisis. Between misleading or fake information about the disease (an “infodemic” according to the World Health Organisation), backlashes against disease control measures, and hesitancy or outright refusal to vaccinate, on the surface one can quickly be convinced that a non-trivial segment of the population didn’t seem to value their health.
How can we explain this seemingly irrational behaviour? That’s a tricker question. Irrational beliefs have always been a barrier in public health from even the very earliest ideas of inoculation in the 18th century. We’ve also known for some time that endorsing irrational ideas, about medical practices like vaccination, translates into lowered intentions and negative beliefs about getting vaccinations (Jolley & Douglas, 2014). In that sense, irrational and conspiratorial beliefs are not merely harmless ideas.
But why do we endorse this kind of thinking? While there is still no definitive answer to this question, recent thinking in the psychological sciences seems to suggest that irrational conspiracy theories emerge to satisfy several psychological needs under conditions of uncertainty and unpredictability (Douglas et al., 2017, 2019). Under such circumstances, we can often become less critical and analytic, and will more likely use biased and fallacious reasoning mechanisms when we try and make sense of incomplete or disjointed information. This can lead us to see specific patterns, or the work of some sort of conscious control force, in what is actually just randomness and coincidence. This allows conspiratorial narratives to form and to make sense to some individuals, who then share their ‘explanations’ with others. When uncertainty combines with threat and anxiety, such irrational thinking can act as a coping mechanism to give people a sense of empowerment in their management of whatever the threat in their environment is. For some, possession of what they see as “knowledge or truth” about this uncertainty can even go so far as to boost their sense of self-worth and self-esteem and may even boost their own image or status in a group or community. Van Prooijen (2020) suggests that these factors are causally linked and allow irrational beliefs to form and spread within a population.
If uncertainty and threat are two key elements that encourage conspiratorial thinking, then a pandemic provides fertile breeding grounds for such ideas. The arrival of a novel coronavirus (and later, newer variants), with high infection and death rates, plus long-term aftereffects certainly qualify as a serious existential crisis. While the scientific and medical community responded with unprecedented speed and resources, it took time to understand the nature of the virus, the best way to treat it and to eventually vaccinate against it. Couple this with confused, internationally varied and rapidly shifting public health strategies in the early months, leading eventually to the shut down of society, it was likely inevitable that some individuals would come to their own erroneous conclusions that involved corrupt and incompetent officials, greedy pharmaceutical corporations, foreign agents, and many other hostile forces. How else could we explain the sudden shut down of civilisation? Conspiratorial narratives allowed many individuals to fill in the blanks and explain their circumstances, and once these “answers” were out of the box, they spread just as quickly as the virus itself. Indeed, it didn’t take long for the earliest conspiracy theories to emerge in early 2020 (from the virus being engineered in a Chinese laboratory to it being spread by 5G relay towers).
If anxiety and threat can lead to irrational thinking in some individuals, this may create another public health problem. Many of our public health measures rely on creating a sense of threat (so called “fear appeals” – Demirtas-Madran, 2021). These emphasise negative consequences of not complying with public health advice. The UK was no exception, with public health campaigns heavily featuring slogans such as “protect the vulnerable” and “protect the NHS”, implying that not following the rules would lead to a collapse in the health infrastructure and an even greater death toll. Fear campaigns have generally been shown to have positive effects on preventative behaviours as well as reducing hostility to social restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic (Harper et al., 2020; Koniak & Cwalina, 2020). While research suggests that generally, evoking fear and anxiety works well, what is it likely to do in groups who, as a result of increased anxiety, have already adopted narratives contrary to established policies?
In early 2021, I spent some time looking at this (Copping, 2022). In a UK study, participants were asked to complete measures of their anxiety around Covid-19, how compliant they were during national lockdown (e.g., enacted social distancing and did not allow people into their house) and how much they endorsed both general conspiratorial beliefs and conspiracy beliefs surrounding Covid-19. There was a significant relationship between anxiety and compliance behaviours; as one might expect, as anxiety increases, for most people, they became more compliant. This suggests again that fear appeals are generally effective in public health campaigns.
However, this relationship varies by endorsement of Covid-19 conspiracy beliefs (albeit, not general conspiratorial thinking). The relationship between anxiety and compliance is significant when Covid-19 conspiracy belief is low. As individuals increasingly endorse such beliefs however, this relationship disappears and in those with the strongest endorsement of these beliefs, the relationship actually reverses, i.e., the more anxious they are, they become increasingly non-compliant (although the size of the sample prevented this from showing statistical significance).
Thankfully, endorsement of Covid-19 conspiracies in the sample were low, with the most extreme group representing less than 5% of the sample. However, were this 5% nationally representative and translated into a group who refused vaccines or to comply with public safety directives, then what we would have is a non-trivial number of individuals undermining the national effort to reduce infection. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS, 2021), vaccine hesitancy in the UK during this study period was approximately 9% (although as high as 17% in 16–29-year-olds). While the ONS did not measure endorsement of conspiracy theories, it is likely that these irrational beliefs contribute to that hesitancy.
So, for the majority of people in the UK, playing on fear is a working strategy to enforce compliance with public health programs in a crisis. But for those that endorse certain irrational beliefs about whatever that crisis is, using fear and anxiety may in fact produce the opposite of the desired outcome, and it is for this reason that the production and spread of conspiratorial ideas is perhaps more problematic than people think. Despite what many people believe, conspiracy theories are far from harmless.
Copping, L.T. (2022). Anxiety and covid-19 compliance behaviors in the UK: The moderating role of conspiratorial thinking. Personality and Individual Differences, 192, 111604. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2022.111604
Douglas, K., Sutton, R. M., & Cichocka, A. (2017). The psychology of conspiracy theories. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(6), 538–542. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721417718261
Douglas, K., Uscinski, J., Sutton, R. M., Cichocka, A., Nefes, T., Ang, C. S., & Deravi, F. (2019). Understanding conspiracy theories. Advances in Political Psychology, 40.https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12568
Harper, C. A., Satchell, L. P., Fido, D., & Latzman, R. D. (2020). Functional fear predicts public health compliance in the COVID-19 pandemic. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-020-00281-5
Jolley, D., & Douglas, K. M. (2014). The effects of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories on vaccination intentions. PLoS ONE, 9(2), Article e89177. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0089177
Koniak, P., & Cwalina, W. (2020). Fear of coronavirus and forbid/allow asymmetry as determinants of acceptance of COVID-19 pandemic related restrictions and persistence of attitudes towards these regulations. Social Psychology Bulletin, 15,1–13. https://doi.org/10.32872/spb.4421
ONS. (2021, March). Coronavirus and vaccine hesitancy, Great Britain: 13 January to 7 February 2021 Accessed via https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/healthandwellbeing/bulletins/coronavirusandvaccinehesitancygreatbritain/13januaryto7february2021
Van Prooijen, J. W. (2020). An existential threat model of conspiracy theories. European Psychologist, 25(1), 16–25. https://doi.org/10.1027/1016-9040/a000381