People with greater feelings of anxiety and lack of control during the early stages of the COVID‐19 pandemic were more likely to endorse some conspiracy theories about the deadly virus, according to new research published in Applied Cognitive Psychology.
“Our research team has a long tradition of studying epistemically suspect beliefs (such as paranormal, conspiracy, and pseudoscientific beliefs),” explained study author Jakub Šrol, a researcher at the Institute of Experimental Psychology at the Slovak Academy of Sciences.
“When the pandemic hit, and even before the first cases of COVID-19 were actually identified in Slovakia, it seemed that there was a substantial rise in the spread of various conspiracy theories and pseudoscientific beliefs about COVID-19.”
“In social psychological research (e.g. van Prooijen & Douglas, 2017), it is well known that conspiracy theories thrive after sudden negative events, such as financial crises, wars, or epidemics, which make people feel anxious and lacking control about their lives. This is why we wanted to see whether these feelings were associated with greater endorsement of COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs, as well as other generic epistemically suspect beliefs,” Šrol explained.
For their study, the researchers surveyed 783 participants about one week after the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Slovakia.
As part of the survey, the participants were asked to indicate how much they agreed with various coronavirus conspiracy beliefs, such as “SARS-CoV-2 (coronavirus) is a biological weapon created to eliminate the overcrowded human population” and “COVID-19 (coronavirus) is only a fabrication, it is an ordinary flu which pharmaceutical companies rebranded to increase the sales of drugs.” They also indicated whether they felt anxious or felt that they lacked control because of the pandemic.
The researchers found that both feelings of anxiety and lack of control were associated with the belief in conspiracy theories about COVID‐19. Feelings of anxiety and lack of control tended to be higher among those who perceived more risk from COVID‐19 and had lower trust in institutions.
“When we are in a situation which makes us feel anxious and lacking control (this could be a major world event such as COVID-19 pandemic, but also personal and intimate one, such as the death of a loved one), we may be more prone to look for meaning in life and attempt to regain our sense of control by various means, including by adopting conspiracy theories,” Šrol told PsyPost.
“Although it might seem strange, such theories may satisfy important psychological needs — such as the need to understand what is happing around us, and the need to feel in control and perceive meaning in life.”
The researchers noted that conspiracy theories offer people relatively simple explanations for complex events.
“Believing that a certain country (such as China or the USA) created the virus intentionally in a laboratory to use as a bioweapon, despite there being no evidence for such a claim, gives people a clear and simple explanation of the origin of COVID‐19 and an unambiguous actor to blame the pandemic on,” Šrol and his colleagues wrote in their study.
“In comparison, the official account of the origin of the COVID‐19 may be a source of strong feelings of anxiety and lack of control resulting from the realization that such a large and negative event as a COVID‐19 pandemic could be a consequence of something seemingly so insignificant and random (and thus, uncontrollable) as a transmission of a certain virus from an animal to human.”
But there was one noticeable exception to the overall trend. Those who believed the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was really an ordinary flu tended to have lower anxiety. “This is understandable, since under this account COVID-19 is nothing to be scared of,” Šrol said.
Šrol and his colleagues also found that feelings of anxiety and lack of control were associated with the endorsement of non-coronavirus conspiracy beliefs, paranormal beliefs, and pseudoscientific beliefs in general — a finding that is in line with previous research indicating that some people have a general susceptibility to believing unsubstantiated claims.
But the study — like all research — includes some caveats.
“A major limitation of our study was that the research was correlational. While we expected that people who felt more anxious and lacking control (because of the pandemic) will adopt more conspiracy theories about COVID-19, it is equally possible that people who already held some conspiracy theories (about COVID-19 or generic ones) also felt more anxious and lacking control,” Šrol said.
The study, “When we are worried, what are we thinking? Anxiety, lack of control, and conspiracy beliefs amidst the COVID‐19 pandemic“, was authored by Jakub Šrol, Eva Ballová Mikušková, and Vladimíra Čavojová.