Common Sense and Hydroxychloroquine

Why skepticism regarding fads is warranted.

Posted Apr 07, 2020

I got a request from Jeff Larsen, a social psychology professor at the University of Tennessee, to give a Zoom talk to his class explaining the hydroxychloroquine fad. This post is a summary of what I plan to say.

First of all, I am more of a personality psychologist (within a developmental psych background) than a social psychologist, so what I have to say differs a little from what a social psychologist would say. The difference is that I am interested in individual behavior, and the factors that influence individual behavior, while a social psychologist is more interested in group behavior and the forces that influence group behavior. (That may be an oversimplification; I count on Professor Larsen to correct me).

So, a social psychologist would want to know what contextual factors influence so many to pursue that fad, while I am more interested in why so many people pursue the fad while so many others (such as myself) do not. That said, there is much overlap, as I certainly am interested in the role of context as an influence on individual behavior, but not as the whole story. Context will explain why so many buy into the hydroxychloroquine fad, but I don’t buy into it and I am exposed to some of the same context.

The context here is that President Trump has been promoting the fad as have some of his surrogates on Fox News and within conservative and religious circles. Since I'm not an avid Fox News viewer, however, I am exposed to less of the pro-hydroxychloroquine context.

In my theories of gullibility (see my 2009 book Annals of Gullibility) and foolishness (see my 2019 book Anatomy of Foolishness) I propose a four-factor explanatory model, of which context (which I term “Situation”) is one. The other three factors are Cognition, Personality, and Affect/State.

Cognition figures into the equation, in that people vary in terms of how much they know about the action being espoused as well as their ability to think logically about such relatively complicated matters. I am not a medical researcher, but I know something about the immune system. More importantly, I know something about the history of fads, and the dangers of relying on anecdotal information spouted by people (such as politicians) who lack scientific credentials. The social psychological Dunning-Kruger effect explains why some people who lack expertise think they possess it, and that applies to promoters of questionable fads as well as those who buy into them.

Personality is a major factor here, and it includes several related traits such as other-directedness (tendency to follow the lead of others) and credulousness (a tendency to believe nonsense). I think people who jump on fads are likely higher in these traits.

Finally, there is the role of Affect/State. In the case of Covid-19, there is tremendous fear and anxiety around the world, and this might explain why some people who might otherwise be somewhat skeptical might now feel inclined to jump on the hydroxychloroquine bandwagon, as they feel a sense of desperation.   

I think this theory might help to explain but not predict (there are too many unknowns) why specific individuals jump on the bandwagon while others reserve judgment and look to real experts. Hydroxychloroquine may turn out to have some benefits relating to Covid-19, but common sense (which our president cites as his authority) in fact tells us we don’t know enough at this point to promote a fad that could be worthless or even, for some people, dangerous.

Copyright Stephen Greenspan