Critically Thinking About Conspiracy Theories and COVID-19

Understanding why people believe in conspiracy theories.

Posted Apr 24, 2020

People all over the world are experiencing the COVID-19 crisis in a variety of ways. In Ireland, a vast majority of the population has been asked to stay at home in an effort to battle the spread of the virus. Other than giving me an opportunity to spend more time with my family, one good thing that has come from all this (for me, anyway) is that it’s also given me a chance to read more. However, some of that reading is conducted through social media, which unfortunately is often a breeding ground for misinformation; so, critical thinking is obviously requisite for this endeavour.

Though my regular readers will know that I often write about how we can deal with misinformation (e.g. reasons we fall for it, ways to spot it and how we can avoid presenting it), there is one type of misinformation that arguably hasn’t yet been given the consideration it deserves on this blog — conspiracy theories.

A conspiracy theory is a falsely derived belief that the ultimate cause of an event results from the plotting of multiple omnipresent and omnipotent actors working together in pursuit of an often malevolent, unlawful, and secret goal (Bale, 2007; Mandick, 2007; Swami et al., 2014; Swami & Furnham, 2014). Research suggests that belief in conspiracy theories is correlated with lower levels of education (Douglas et al., 2016); lower crystallized intelligence (Swami et al., 2011); lower analytic thinking and open-mindedness, as well as higher scores on intuitive thinking (Swami et al., 2014) — the latter which is in opposition to reflective judgment and critical thinking (Dwyer, 2017).

Conspiracy theories often come to the fore in light of catastrophes and events that challenge social order (Van Prooijen & Jostmann, 2013), such as the pandemic we’re now facing. Given that approximately half of the American public surveyed were found to believe in at least one conspiracy theory (Oliver & Wood, 2014), belief in such ideas may be more widespread than one might think. Also worth considering is that those who believe in one conspiracy theory are likely to believe in other conspiracy theories as well (e.g. Goertzel, 1994; van Prooijen, 2012).

Dangerous are times when such misinformation spreads to real-world scenarios. An example of this hit the news in recent weeks, with arsonists in England setting fire to multiple 5G towers, spurred by belief in the conspiracy theory that 5G is in some way associated with or responsible for COVID-19. Now, I’ve heard many conspiracy theories over the years, but this one is up there with "the lizard people"; and it makes me ask, why do people buy into this nonsense? 

Similar to a recent piece I wrote on the Mandela Effect, perhaps one reason this kind of misinformation gets created is that it’s "somewhat" (and I use that term liberally) based in truth. For example, there have been concerns raised in the past about potential correlates between adverse health outcomes and 5G. However, these potentialities are yet to be substantiated and, perhaps, most contextually relevant, they have no link with COVID-19. The point is, misinformation like this doesn’t just get dreamed up out of nowhere (though might often sound like it); rather, it’s often a bastardisation of a concept potentially based on, to some extent, fact.

Another thing I mention time and time again is that humans are cognitively lazy (Kahneman, 2011) — our brains have evolved to conserve energy and, so, they don’t very much like expending too much when a decision can be made that is "good enough" (e.g. satisficing [Simon, 1957]). We like things simple; and at the same rate, we also don’t like being in the dark about why and how things happen.

For example, before the advent of the scientific method, we created tales about people in the sky who controlled the sun’s rise and setting, along with the moon and the stars. Likewise, you might be a parent who explains to your children that thunder is simply "God bowling." We do this because the factual answer might be too complex to grasp; thus, we develop an answer that solves the problem well-enough to facilitate understanding (e.g. satisficing).

Consider all the old sayings and adages we hold as true through "common" knowledge. We use them to wrap complex processes up into nice, neat little packages so that they’re easy for us to comprehend — regardless of whether or not the information is accurate.

In many ways, conspiracy theories do this as well. Though they fail to provide accurate information, they do provide an explanation simple enough to comprehend, helping to make "sense" of the world; and, at the same time, provide a form of closure. Indeed research indicates that belief in conspiracy theories is significantly correlated with desire for closure (Swami & Furnham, 2014).

Likewise (and similar to the just-world phenomenon), a desire to have tragic events "make sense" through such explanations (i.e. conspiracy theories), may serve as a coping mechanism that provides reassurance (Newheiser, Farias & Tausch, 2011; van Prooijen, 2012), such as those who might feel powerless, be it for economic, social, or political reasons (Swami & Furnham, 2014). The concept of powerlessness is also important to consider in this context.

For example, ever notice how there is seldom a "nice" conspiracy theory — like, how groups are getting together to help the sick and suffering? Conspiracy theories not only explain an event (albeit inaccurately) but also give back the concept of "control" to those who might feel powerless or angry, through blaming a tragic event on a group of people or a thing; thus, creating a scapegoat (e.g. consider Scapegoat Theory). In this sense, no matter how powerful the conspirators might be, the individual takes back control by "figuring out the conspiracy" and sharing it with others; thus, "battling" the conspirators through "revolutionary thinking."

Despite generally being more agreeable (Swami et al., 2011), conspiracy theorists often claim to be "skeptics" and to think critically — typically questioning structures of power; albeit, without offering real alternatives (Swami & Furnham, 2014). Though skepticism is an important disposition towards critical thinking, open-mindedness is just as important — both are necessary for the drawing of rational, reflective conclusions (Dwyer et al., 2016).

As I discussed in a past blog post on the relationship between these two critical thinking dispositions, open-mindedness is not just blindly accepting the information that’s provided, it’s about being open to changing your mind in light of new evidence; detaching from your beliefs and focusing on unbiased thinking void of self-interest; as well as being open to constructive criticism and new ideas.

Pennycook et al. (2015) distinguish types of open-mindedness in a manner that might help explain this issue: Reflective open-mindedness searches for information as a means to facilitate critical thought, whereas reflexive open-mindedness is accepting of information without much processing — making the latter more "open" to misinformation.

Perhaps the latter description is often confused for what is actually meant by open-mindedness; and may explain why scepticism (which can be misinterpreted as the opposite of open-mindedness) might be perceived by some as more important for critical thinking.

If you ever argued with a conspiracy theorist, "open-minded" (i.e. the reflective type) may not be your first description of their thinking. However, as I discuss regularly, it’s hard to change people’s minds; so, it’s not exactly fair to focus on conspiracy theorists alone here. With that, the same issues with changing minds and debunking still apply — and this problem is further enhanced when the conspiracy in question blames a "body" that the "theorist" is already against. That is, individuals are more likely to believe conspiracy theories if they are biased in favour of the individual’s pre-existing views, such as dislike of the government (Swami & Furnham, 2014).         

The reasons why people fall into believing in conspiracy theories are numerous and complex. Belief in conspiracy theories might stem from a desire for closure in a complex scenario or to halt some feeling of powerlessness and take back control through blaming events on a "higher power" — perhaps, through some bastardization of concepts based on fact. Maybe, it’s because of lower ability in specific cognitive processes or a function of economic, social, or political background. Maybe, it’s all of these. As always, if you have any insights or know of any relevant research in this area, please let me know.  

References

Bale, J. M. (2007). Political paranoia v. political realism: on distinguishing between bogus conspiracy theories and genuine conspiratorial politics. Patterns of Prejudice, 41, 45–60.

Douglas KM, Sutton RM, Callan MJ, et al. (2016). Someone is pulling the strings: Hypersensitive agency detection and belief in conspiracy theories. Thinking & Reasoning, 22: 57-77.

Dwyer, C. P. (2017). Critical thinking: Conceptual perspectives and practical guidelines. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Dwyer, C. P., Harney, O., Hogan, M. J., & Kavanagh, C. (2016). Facilitating a Student-Educator Conceptual Model of Dispositions towards Critical Thinking through Interactive Management. Educational Technology & Research, doi: 10.1007/s11423-016-9460-7.

Goertzel T. Belief in conspiracy theories. Political Psychology 1994; 15:731-742.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking fast and slow. Penguin: Great Britain.

Mandick, P. (2007). Shit happens. Episteme, 4, 205–18.

Newheiser, A.-K., Farias, M., and Tausch, N. (2011). The functioning nature of conspiracy beliefs: examining the underpinnings of beliefs in the Da Vinci Code conspiracy. Personality and Individual Differences, 51, 1007–11.

Oliver, E.O. & Wood, T.J. (2014). Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style (s) of Mass Opinion. American Journal of Political Science, 58, 952-966.

Pennycook, G., Cheyne, J. A., Barr, N., Koehler, D. J., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2015). On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit. Judgment and Decision making, 10(6), 549-563.

Simon, H. A. (1957). Models of man. New York: Wiley.

Swami, V., Coles, R., Stieger, S., Pietschnig, J., Furnham, A., Rehim, S., and Voracek, M. (2011). Conspiracist ideation in Britain and Austria: evidence of a monological belief system and associations between individual psychological differences and real-world and fictitious conspiracy theories. British Journal of Psychology, 102, 443–63.

Swami, V., & Furnham, A. (2014). Political paranoia and conspiracy theories. Power, politics, and paranoia: Why people are suspicious of their leaders, 218.

Swami, V., Voracek, M., Stieger, S., Tran, U. S., & Furnham, A. (2014). Analytic thinking reduces belief in conspiracy theories. Cognition, 133(3), 572-585.

van Prooijen, J. W. (2012). Suspicions of injustice: The sense-making function of belief in conspiracy theories. In E. Kals & J. Maes (Eds.), Justice and conflict: Theoretical and empirical contributions (pp. 121–132). Berlin Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.

van Prooijen, J. W., & Jostmann, N. B. (2013). Belief in conspiracy theories: The influence of uncertainty and perceived morality. European Journal of Social Psychology, 43(1), 109-115.