The psychology of Covid-19 conspiracies

Could confidence in the government act as a buffer against Covid-19 conspiracy theories? The University of Otago's Ana Stojanov takes a look at why conspiracies proliferate in times of crisis. 

Governments throughout the world have taken more or less successful, and more or less timely measures against Covid-19. At the same time, people all over the world have witnessed a proliferation of conspiracy theories regarding the virus. Whether it’s a deliberately made bioweapon, a plot for population control, or a scheme for profit by big Pharma, you are likely to have come across one or more of these beliefs.

Although these ideas may seem far-fetched, if not ludicrous, to those who don’t believe them, it turns out that conspiracy theories may serve an important psychological function, addressing a need that we all have but that we fulfil in different ways: the need to predict and control our world. 

Covid-19 has no precedent in most of our lives, and has had an unprecedented impact on them. It is no wonder then that we, collectively, are trying to make sense of this new reality. The psychological literature indicates that in highly stressful and unfamiliar situations, we are motivated to restore our sense of control over the world by finding patterns in events. Conspiracy theories may be appealing because they offer an explanation in a situation where any explanation is better than none at all.

An analogy would be a glass of water, with a full glass representing the ideal state of order and control. Assuming we require a certain, constant sense of control (analogous to the water in the system), when our “cup” empties (as in a pandemic), we attempt to maintain perceptions of order and control by looking for sources of order and control outside ourselves. We may not be in control, but as long as someone is, things are not chaotic. 

To gather support for this idea we asked students at the University of Otago to rate their belief in conspiracy theories regarding Covid-19 and to tell us about their perceptions of control and the degree to which they have been affected by the Covid-19 crisis (along with other questions about the perceptions of the government response to Covid-19). 

Participants who reported lower perceptions of general control over their lives reported that they were more affected by the crisis. These participants also reported higher belief in Covid-19-related conspiracy theories, consistent with the idea that lack of personal control may indeed motivate belief in conspiracy theories.

There are, of course other means people can use to regain personal control that do not require belief in conspiracy theories. In fact, since “conspiracy theorist” is a derogatory term (conspiracy theorists themselves don’t use it), endorsing such theories might be an option of last resort, taken when no other entity –  such as our government, our scientists, our elders, or our religious institutions, seems capable of providing the sense of control that we crave.

For example, if the government is seen as strong and competent enough to deal with a crisis, conspiracy theories may not be an attractive means of regaining control. If true, then conspiracy theories should gain less traction in countries that have responded effectively to Covid-19. 

To test this idea, we administered the same questionnaire in North Macedonia, whose government is demonstrably less competent, and more corrupt than New Zealand’s, and whose handling of the Covid-19 crisis has been predictably less effective. For example, despite curfews, the longest of which was 85 hours, the number of active cases (1723) and deaths (95) is larger in North Macedonia. Unsurprisingly, compared to New Zealanders, who “somewhat agreed” that the government acted competently in managing the Covid-19 crisis, the Macedonian participants “somewhat disagreed” with this same statement. 

How did the two countries compare on Covid-19 conspiracy beliefs? In general, both New Zealanders and Macedonians tended to score below the midpoint of the scale, meaning neither group strongly endorsed these ideas. Nevertheless, Macedonians were more willing to entertain them, on averaging rating themselves “uncertain” whether they were true or not. New Zealanders, in contrast, tended to rate them “false”. 

We cannot be sure, comparing just these two countries, how important the governments’ competence is in their citizens’ willingness to accept fringe theories – there are many other differences between the two countries, and more research is required to isolate the active ingredients in conspiracy theory beliefs.

In the meantime, New Zealanders should be proud of the collective results they have achieved, not only in fighting Covid-19, but Covid-19 conspiracy beliefs too. It is interesting to consider, too, whether the two are related – whether the Government’s success in managing the Covid-19 crisis may have a role not only in protecting our physical health, but also in protecting the psychological health, of our community.

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