A new longitudinal study provides evidence that belief in COVID-19 conspiracy theories is prospectively associated with a variety of negative outcomes, including contracting the virus. The research has been published in the journal Psychological Medicine.
Previous research has found that COVID-19 conspiracy theories, such as the belief that the dangers of the virus are being exaggerated by medical professionals for their own benefit, are associated with a lower likelihood of following government guidelines intended to slow the spread of the virus.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has stimulated many conspiracy theories, and it has become apparent that belief in these conspiracy theories matter for health behavior such as physical distancing,” explained study author Jan‐Willem van Prooijen, an associate professor of psychology at VU Amsterdam. “But very little was known about the implications of COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs over a longer period of time, for concrete outcomes relevant for health and well-being.”
The researchers examined data from a large panel of Dutch residents. About 9,000 participants were surveyed at the start of the panel in April 2020. In December 2020, 5,745 of those participants completed a follow-up survey.
At the beginning of the panel, participants indicated how strongly they believed in four conspiracy theories: “The coronavirus (COVID-19) is a bioweapon engineered by scientists,” “The coronavirus (COVID-19) is a conspiracy to take away citizens’ rights for good and establish an authoritarian government,” “The coronavirus (COVID-19) is a hoax invented by interest groups for financial gains,” and “The coronavirus (COVID-19) was created as a cover-up for the impending global economic crash.”
The researchers found that people who endorsed the conspiracies in April were more likely to report in December that they had visited an overcrowded party or bar/restaurant and were less likely to report that they had worn a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Those who believed in the conspiracies were also less likely to indicate that they had received a COVID-19 test. But among those who did get tested, belief in the conspiracies was associated with an increased likelihood of the test being positive.
Belief in the conspiracy theories was also associated with economic and social consequences. People who endorsed the conspiracies in April were more likely to report in December that they had lost their job. People who endorsed the conspiracies were also more likely to indicate that others had ended contact with them because of their opinions about COVID-19. Those who rejected the conspiracies, on the other hand, were more likely to indicate that they had ended contact with others.
“Presumably, people low in conspiracy belief are more likely to reject people high in conspiracy belief rather than vice versa. Such intolerance of conspiracy believers is consistent with the notion that publicly endorsing conspiracy beliefs is stigmatizing,” the researchers said.
The survey also asked participants whether they had experienced financial problems, relationship problems, loneliness, depression, fear, uncertainty about the future, conflicts, sleeplessness, frustration, temper tantrums, or panic attacks during the pandemic — and the responses to these questions were combined into a general measure of well-being. The researchers found that belief in the COVID-19 conspiracy theories was associated with reduced well-being.
“Our results show that conspiracy beliefs are associated with a range of health and well-being outcomes eight months later,” van Prooijen told PsyPost. “The more strongly people believed conspiracy theories in April 2020, then by December 2020 the less likely they were to have been tested for corona; if tested, the higher the chance for a positive test result; and, conspiracy beliefs predicted a higher likelihood of having violated regulations to contain the virus, deteriorated economic outcomes, an increased likelihood of social rejection experiences, and overall lower well-being.”
The results held even after the researchers controlled for gender, age, political orientation, and education level. But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“For at least some of the health and well-being outcomes, it would be premature to conclude a causal effect,” van Prooijen said. “For instance, we find that conspiracy beliefs predicted a higher likelihood of job loss in the subsequent eight months. This may be due to the effects of conspiracy beliefs (for instance, espousing conspiracy theories may erode people’s social support network), but an alternative explanation, which we currently can’t exclude, is that people with professions that obviously would be hit particularly hard by lockdown measures (such as shop or bar owners) were also more likely to develop conspiracy beliefs early in the pandemic.”
“Conspiracy theories are in many ways harmful for society. But, this study suggests that in the long run, conspiracy theories also are associated with harmful health and well-being outcomes for believers themselves,” van Prooijen added.
The study, “Conspiracy beliefs prospectively predict health behavior and well-being during a pandemic“, was authored by Jan-Willem van Prooijen, Tom W. Etienne, Yordan Kutiyski, and André P. M. Krouwel.