The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories During COVID-19

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With 2020 behind us, it’s no surprise it has been a very busy year for conspiracy theorists. We’ve heard everything from 5G spread diseases to microchip tracking, face masks to satanic pedophiles in government. Unfortunately, history tends to repeat itself. During the Spanish pandemic flu, which killed over 20 million people, there were anti-mask groups spreading conspiracy theories. Therefore, the emergence of these theories is predictable today in the context of a pandemic like Covid-19. so predictable that they could almost be viewed as a side effect of the pandemic.

Certain psychological patterns can explain why conspiracies become increasingly popular in times of social crisis. The human mind, the virus threat, the lockdown, and social media work together to create the perfect combination to drag people through the rabbit hole of conspiracy theory.

It is important for humans to believe in something. Regardless of whether these beliefs come from religion or science, their usefulness is to fill the void that uncertainty leaves. The desire to understand the world is the central motive of believing in conspiracy theories. When people don’t have an answer to a question, they tend to make one up. Trying to identify a cause for events is essential to the stability and consistency of our understanding of the world. The greater the existential threat, the more people try to make sense of what they are experiencing. Conspiracy theories usually offer a sense of control in an unsafe situation and when a lack of control is perceived. That way, people can explain how a situation developed and who can be trusted. Identifying the cause of an important event creates the impression of being able to predict and anticipate future events.

The human mind tends to use abbreviations to simplify information through cognitive biases and heuristics. By preferring simple information and using as little mental effort as possible, we tend to accept a particular explanation when it suits our needs. Conspiracies provide a very simplified explanation for situations that are indeed very complex and otherwise very difficult to understand. Hence, people tend to use the same beliefs to explain as much uncertainty as possible. This pattern appears in conspiracy theories, in which any problem can be explained by the actions of powerful, dangerous people like Bill Gates, pharmaceutical companies or politicians.

Conspiracy theorists tend not to trust the authorities. As the scientific consensus changes as new information emerges, governments and health professionals sometimes contradict each other and exacerbate this suspicion. In addition, the reactions of the authorities regarding the pandemic are sometimes unclear and unsatisfactory, leading to frustration and a search for alternative answers.

A sense of injustice can also influence conspiracy theories. Government health policies can create a sense of injustice by putting certain groups at a disadvantage, such as restaurant workers. Some people may experience similar injustices when assessing their personal situation during the pandemic. Imagine a young, healthy person who is less susceptible to the virus but still has to live with the consequences of the virus, including job loss, lockdown, and social isolation. In addition, many people feel that they have lost their rights and freedoms due to the restrictions. Censoring misinformation on social media is seen by some as a restriction on freedom of expression, which further increases distrust of the authorities.

Social networks allow users to choose specific content and join communities with similar ideas and beliefs. This increases the likelihood of believing misinformation that benefits one group and at the same time disadvantages another. This creates a vicious circle in which conspiracies exacerbate conflicts between groups, and those conflicts increase belief in conspiracies. Similarly, people tend to surround themselves with others who think similarly and confirm their beliefs. This reinforcement can lead to decreased contact with people who think differently. Because of this affirmative bias, people tend to seek and believe information that matches their ideas, resulting in inflexible, polarizing beliefs. By what is known as anchoring prestress; Once the belief is established, it becomes very difficult to get rid of it.

The effects of the pandemic and associated psychological factors can help understand why conspiracy theories are so attractive in times of social crisis. To solve this social problem, it is important for conspiracy theorists to understand the mental shortcuts and social media influence that help develop their beliefs. Recognizing the psychological pattern that leads to these beliefs could help better identify fake news on social platforms.

– Miryam de Courville, guest author

Miryam de Courville is a PhD student in Psychology at the University of Québec in Montréal. She specializes in Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Feature: Engin Akyurt at Unsplash, Creative Commons
First: the explosion at Unsplash, Creative Commons
Second: Wesley Tingey at Unsplash, Creative Commons

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