People with heightened conspiracy mentality appear to have adopted behaviors to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — at least until those behaviors were officially endorsed by the government. That’s the finding from a new study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, which suggests that those who believe the world is actually controlled by hidden elites disengage with prevention measures when they are advocated by the government.
On March 11th, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of the novel coronavirus SARS‐CoV‐2 to be a global pandemic. Governments around the world urged people to follow preventive health measures such as frequent hand washing and physical distancing. But not everyone abided by the safety guidelines, and researchers in France wondered if conspiratorial thinking was playing a role.
“From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw conspiracy theories emerge about the virus, such as the fact that it was created in a Chinese laboratory, or on the contrary by American institutions,” said study author Gaelle Marinthe of the University of Rennes 2 and University Sorbonne-Nouvelle Paris 3.
“We could also see that many people were reluctant to follow preventive behaviors, precisely because it was seen as serving the interests of certain industrial or political groups. In order to fight this pandemic, the involvement of everyone in complying with prevention measures is essential.”
“Together with my colleagues, we then wanted to understand what the link was between a conspiracy mentality (in other words, the tendency to perceive the world as full of conspiracies) and commitment to preventive behavior. We also wanted to examine whether there were factors that could reduce the reluctance of people high in conspiracy mentality to comply with prevention measures,” Marinthe explained.
The researchers conducted an online survey of French participants on March 9th. They conducted a second survey between March 18th and 23rd, just days after the French government issued a confinement order to curb the spread of the virus.
The first survey found that increased conspiracy mentality predicted increased engagement with preventive behaviors such as no longer going to public places or talking to people, which at the time had not been recommended by French authorities. But conspiracy mentality was unrelated to engagement in the government-endorsed preventive behaviors of avoiding physical greetings like handshakes and kisses.
However, the second survey found that once the French government turned what had previously been extreme, non‐normative preventive behaviors into official recommendations, increased conspiracy mentality predicted reduced compliance with confinement measures.
“We have shown through two studies involving 991 French people that the more people had a conspiracy mentality, the less they complied with preventive measures when these were driven by the government. However, we also noted that these individuals perceived more risk to themselves, particularly the risk of death, and that this risk could alleviate the disengagement in preventive behaviors,” Marinthe told PsyPost.
“Based on the results of our study, and in order to mobilize people high in conspiracy mentality who are generally less inclined to adopt prevention measures, we recommend not mentioning the fact that these measures are driven by the government. Highlighting individual risk can also help these individuals to adopt preventive behaviors.”
But like all research, the study includes some limitations.
“In social psychology, two types of studies can be distinguished: correlational studies, which allow us to observe links between variables but not to prove causality between them, and experimental studies, which allow us to prove causality by manipulating a variable. The studies we have conducted are correlational. In other words, the causal link that we put forward between our variables (conspiracy mentality, perceived risk and preventive behaviors) is derived from theory and is consistent with our data, but is not experimentally proven,” Marinthe said.
“Experimental studies will therefore be needed to confirm the causal links we suggest. The second major point is that our studies were conducted on a French population, at a time when the COVID-19 health threat was particularly strong. The effects we observed may not be the same depending on the national context or the degree of salience of the COVID-19 threat. Other studies in other contexts could then usefully complement ours.”
“Communication around COVID-19, or any other threat, is complex. What we observe in our study applies to people with a high conspiracy mentality, but is not necessarily true for others. For example, we found that people with high conspiracy mentality were less likely to comply with prevention behaviors when they were dictated by the government,” Marinthe added.
“In general, however, highlighting a source of authority (e.g., government) can help to enforce preventive measures. Communication around such an issue is therefore multifaceted, and must take into account the different characteristics of individuals in order to increase its effectiveness.”
The study, “Looking out for myself: Exploring the relationship between conspiracy mentality, perceived personal risk, and COVID‐19 prevention measures“, was authored by Gaelle Marinthe, Genavee Brown, Sylvain Delouvee, and Daniel Jolley.