Since the creation of COVID-19 vaccines, the push for mass vaccinations has been stalled and criticized due to waves of misinformation and distrust. But why are some people so quick to believe dubious claims over well-established science? A study published in Personality and Individual Differences suggests that people who reject the COVID-19 vaccine are more likely to believe “alternative facts” and that this is linked to less intellectual humility, higher levels of distrust, and a stronger reliance on intuition.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to widespread misinformation that has caused action or deliberate inaction in regard to masking, vaccines, and more for many people. For people who believe the science and take public health precautions, believing in alternative facts can be difficult to fathom. Previous research has shown that this can be attributed to needing certainty while in a scary situation, wanting exclusive information and knowledge about a topic or event, and expressing dismay.
The researchers in this study describe the willingness to believe alternative facts over well-known science as “believing in nothing and believing in everything.” In this study, they sought to determine whether this is a general thought pattern, not specific to the pandemic or any other previously held beliefs.
Study author Devora Newman and colleagues utilized a sample of 418 English-speaking participants under the age of 40. This study was completed during April of 2021 when around a quarter of the US population had received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. The age was capped at 40 because of the idea that the pandemic was much more dangerous for older people, and they were more likely to have gotten the vaccine.
Participants were pre-screened for their beliefs about the vaccine weeks before the study took place. They were randomly assigned to one of two data sets, which contained the same facts, but the facts presented as factual items in set A were presented as alternative facts in set B and vice versa.
To create these sets, Newman and colleagues randomly selected 10 topics of general knowledge and created a true and alternative fact for each. Additionally, participants completed measures on reliance on intuition, distrust, need for chaos, conspiracy beliefs, intellectual humility, vaccine knowledge and opinions, and demographics.
The participants who doubted the COVID-19 vaccine were operationalized as being high in distrust, and those participants showed significantly less truth discernment. In other words, participants who did not trust the vaccine were more likely to believe in alternative facts (such as “All apples in the grocery stores are clones of each other, flavored and colored differently to increase sales”) and less likely to believe in mainstream facts (such as “There are many types of apples that vary by flavor, color and genetic makeup”).
“Our main hypothesis is that the cognitive paradox captured in our scale is a manifestation of a distrusting mindset, in which one spontaneously considers alternatives,” the researchers said. “In line with this conceptualization, we found significantly less truth discernment among individuals with chronically high distrust … Specifically, the participants who rejected this vaccine believed mainstream facts less compared to those who supported the vaccine, and believed the novel ‘alternative facts’ more. Critically, the results do not imply that vaccine opponents did not believe the facts at all; they did, but to a significantly lesser extent than supporters of the vaccine.”
Participants who were anti-vaccine were also higher in trusting their intuition, need for chaos, and conspiracy beliefs, but lower in intellectual humility than their pro-vaccine counterparts.
“People who exhibited the paradox were not only more distrusting in general, they also relied more on their intuition, believed conspiracy theories more, had a greater need for chaos and were less intellectually humble. This cluster of attitudes may provide the antecedents for belief in ‘alternative facts’ and conspiracy theories,” the researchers said.
This study took strides into understanding misinformation and belief in alternative facts. Despite this progress, it also has its limitations. One such limitation is that the sample only included U.S. residents. Due to divisive politics and media coverage in the United States, it may be useful to utilize a non-American sample and see if the same effects hold or if this is an American phenomenon. Additionally, participants were all under 40 years old. This makes it difficult to determine if older Americans would show similar beliefs and biases.
The study, “Believing in nothing and believing in everything: The underlying cognitive paradox of anti-COVID-19 vaccine attitudes“, was authored by Devora Newman, Stephan Lewandowsky, and Ruth Mayoa.