New research provides evidence irrational beliefs and cognitive tendencies play an important role in health behaviors related to COVID-19, such as adherence to COVID-19 safety guidelines and engaging in pseudoscientific practices. The study has been published in the scientific journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.
“Researchers from our lab are currently extensively investigating the psychological roots of so-called ‘questionable health practices’, be it non-adhering to official medical recommendations (e.g. antibiotic overuse, self-medication, avoiding therapies) or resorting to alternative or pseudoscientific practices (e.g. homeopathy, acupuncture, dietary regimens),” explained study author Iris Žeželj, an associate professor at the University of Belgrade.
“The COVID-19 pandemic, unfortunately, made our work even more relevant. Our main goal is to help health communicators tailor their messages to specific psychological profiles of consumers.”
In the study, 407 Serbian individuals completed a variety of questionnaires and psychological assessments between April 10 and April 22, 2020. The participants indicated how strongly they believed in 13 popular conspiracy theories about COVID-19. The researchers then asked the participants to rate how knowledgeable they were about COVID-19 before they answered 9 true or false questions about the new coronavirus.
The participants also completed a test designed to assess their tendency to erroneously recognize relations between unrelated phenomena and the Cognitive Reflection Test, which consists of three algebraic questions that tend to generate quick, intuitive answers that are incorrect.
The researchers were interested in how these cognitive factors were related to three outcomes: adherence to COVID-19 safety guidelines, willingness to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, and the use of pseudoscientific practices to combat COVID-19.
Belief in COVID-19 conspiracy theories emerged as the most consistent predictor of these health behaviors. Those with stronger beliefs in the conspiracies tended to adhere less to safety guidelines, were less willing to get vaccinated, and endorsed more pseudoscientific practices, such as using essential oils or consulting with astrologers. The tendency to erroneously recognize relations between unrelated phenomena was also associated with the use of pseudoscientific practices.
“Typically viewed as harmless, pseudoscientific practices can range from extremely dangerous (drinking methanol or injecting disinfectants) to deceptive ones, leading people astray from evidence-based practices,” Žeželj told PsyPost.
“We identified a pattern of thinking making people more susceptible to these practices related to COVID-19: primarily proneness to conspiratorial beliefs, and to a class of cognitive biases named Type 1 error (perceiving non-existing relations).”
The researchers also found that participants who overestimated their COVID-19 knowledge as well as those who followed their “gut feelings” reported less adherence to COVID-19 guidelines, compared to those with a more accurate self-assessment of their knowledge and those who were more reflective.
But Žeželj and her colleagues did not find a strong link between COVID-19 knowledge and pseudoscientific practices. “Consequently, educating people about the virus and recommended behaviors might not be enough, as the main drivers of these practices are irrational beliefs. Ideally, the average person might become more sensitized to the outcomes of these beliefs, and revise the ‘at least it cannot hurt’ perception of alternative and pseudoscientific practices.”
But it is still unclear how to fight irrational beliefs that could be causing harm during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“There seems to be a growing number of studies replicating our results, especially in the domain of conspiracy theories and their consequences related to COVID-19 behaviors. Refuting conspiratorial beliefs, however, is notoriously difficult, since they entail, in their very nature, distrust in all official sources of information which also include us as scientists (they are strongly related to science skepticism),” Žeželj explained.
“That means direct debunking alone has the potential to even backfire, and that it should be complemented with alternative communication strategies, such as, for example, presenting people with typical conspiratorial arguments in advance (inoculation of a sort), or pointing out the fact that selling alternative cures is also a profitable industry. We are testing the effectiveness of the latter strategy at the moment.”
The study, “Irrational Beliefs Differentially Predict Adherence to Guidelines and Pseudoscientific Practices During the COVID‐19 Pandemic“, was authored by Predrag Teovanović, Petar Lukić, Zorana Zupan, Aleksandra Lazić, Milica Ninković, and Iris Žeželj.