New research finds that believing the COVID-19 pandemic was a hoax – or that its severity was exaggerated or that the virus was deliberately released for sinister reasons – acts as a “gateway” to belief in conspiracy theories in general.
In the study of two polls, people who reported greater faith in conspiracy theories about the pandemic — for which there is no evidence — were more likely to report later that they believed the 2020 presidential election had been stolen from Donald Trump through a widespread voter. Fraud, which is also not true. The general tendency of participants to believe in conspiracy theories also increased more among those who reported that they believed COVID-19 was a hoax.
Based on the findings, Ohio State University researchers have proposed the “gateway conspiracy” hypothesis, which argues that conspiracy theory beliefs motivated by a single event lead to an increase in conspiratorial thinking over time.
Preliminary evidence suggests that feelings of mistrust may act as one trigger.
“It’s a guess, but it seems that once people adopt one conspiracy belief, it reinforces distrust of institutions in general — it could be government, science, media, whatever,” said senior author Russell Fazio, a professor of psychology at Ohio State. else”. “Once you start watching events through that dubious lens, it’s very easy to build additional conspiracy theories.”
The study was published today (October 26, 2022) in the journal PLUS ONE.
The field of conspiracy theory research is relatively new, and even now you may be tempted to look for traits that predict propensity to believe in conspiracy theories at a given point in time.
But if you read interviews or forums frequented by conspiracy theorists, you will see a phenomenon where people tend to go down a rabbit hole after something happens in their lives that arouses public interest in conspiracy theories,” said first author Javier Granados Samoa, who completed. He worked while graduating in Psychology in Ohio State. “With COVID-19, there’s been a big event that people can’t control, so how can they make sense of it? One way is to stick to the conspiracy theories.”
Researchers asked 501 participants in a June 2020 survey to answer questions evaluating their beliefs in COVID-19 conspiracy theories, political ideology and so-called conspiracy thought, or an individual’s general affinity for conspiracy theories. In this section, participants used a 5-point scale ranging from “definitely not true” to “certainly true” to rate statements such as “some UFO sightings and rumors are planned or orchestrated in order to distract the public from contact with real aliens.” Suppress new and advanced technology that would harm the existing industry.
Six months later, in December 2020, 107 of these same participants responded again to data that measured their level of conspiratorial thinking. The researchers also assessed conspiracy ideas by asking participants to report the extent to which they believed widespread voter fraud occurred in the 2020 presidential election.
Statistical analysis showed that participants who reported a greater belief that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was released for dark purposes and that the severity of the COVID-19 illness was significantly diminished, also reported a greater belief that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. Compared with their baseline conspiracy ideas measured in the June survey, COVID skeptics had higher levels of general support for conspiracy theories six months later.
Granados Samayawa, now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, said the association held true even after the analysis took into account the association between belief in conspiracy theories about COVID-19, voter fraud and conservative political views.
The team also cited data from a large multi-part UK survey conducted during early spring and late fall 2020 that supports the gateway plot hypothesis: The Ohio State team’s analysis showed that belief among a nationally representative sample of UK adults that the epidemic was a predictable hoax Increases in plot ideas over time.
Ohio data showed a strong trend suggesting that financial distress during the lockdown could be a factor in adoption of conspiracy theory beliefs about the pandemic — even among those who started with low levels of conspiracy ideas.
“And then there’s the question: Once that happens, what changes over time? That’s where we entered this longitudinal work, which was not present in previous research,” Fazio said.
While some previous conspiracy theories have been shown to be true, this study focused on beliefs that are unsupported by evidence and undermined by existing evidence. The researchers note that a better understanding of the dynamics of conspiratorial thinking can help stem the spread of conspiracy thoughts, which are associated with increased risks of violence, discrimination, and poor health choices, among other negative individual and societal outcomes.
“These findings show that we need to prepare for any additional large-scale events similar to COVID-19 to stop conspiracy ideas because once people go down the rabbit hole, they may get stuck,” said Granados Samayawa.
This work was supported by the National Science Foundation. Additional co-authors, all from Ohio, include members of the lab of Fazio Courtney Moore, Shelby Boggs, Jesse Ladani and Benjamin Roych, currently at the University of Kent in England.
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