Even conspiracy theories that do not deny the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic are linked to lower levels of social distancing, according to new research published in the journal Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. The study found that U.S. citizens who believed the novel coronavirus was bioengineered became less likely to engage in social distancing during the initial outbreak.
“When the pandemic struck, we were astonished how easily people in power repeated and endorsed conspiracy theories about COVID-19, completely ignoring their potentially disastrous consequences,” said study author Kinga Bierwiaczonek, a postdoctoral fellow at the Culture, Society and Behavior Research Lab at the University of Oslo.
“Most of these theories, however, did not deny that the virus was real and did not encourage people to ignore it. We started wondering if that makes them any less dangerous, and we decided to test it empirically.”
To examine the link between COVID-19 conspiracy theories and prevention behaviors, the researchers conducted a longitudinal study that collected data from 403 U.S. citizens between March 16 and April 20, 2020. The participants were asked to report their willingness to practice social distancing and their level of belief in conspiracy theories — such as whether the virus was part of a biological warfare program.
Overall, conspiracy beliefs decreased and social distancing increased over time. However, the researchers observed a different trend among those who endorsed conspiracy beliefs. Participants who reported more conspiracy beliefs at one time point tended to report less social distancing at the next time point.
“Even though some conspiracy theories about COVID-19 do not contradict the existence or the danger of the virus, they are still a threat to public health because they discourage people from adhering to safety measures such as social distancing,” Bierwiaczonek told PsyPost.
But it is still unclear why conspiracy theories that are logically unrelated to prevention behaviors are associated with reduced social distancing.
“We can only speculate about the process behind our findings. Why would people who believe, for example, that the virus was man-made, refrain from social distancing? It may be that all conspiracy theories send the message that official news sources, authorities and organizations such as WHO should not be trusted, and by consequence people who believe in any of these theories just stop complying with their policies. However, we do not have data to show that, and we hope that future research will explain it,” Bierwiaczonek said.
The study, “Belief in COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories Reduces Social Distancing over Time“, was authored by Kinga Bierwiaczonek, Jonas R. Kunst, and Olivia Pich.
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