Bill Gates is plotting a way to vaccinate the entire population. 5G towers sparked the spread of COVID-19. The coronavirus was created in a Chinese lab as a bioweapon.
A number of conspiracy theories like these are circulating right now, offering creative (and implausible) explanations as to why and how the coronavirus got such a foothold across the globe. One video ― called “Plandemic” ― made the rounds on social media recently, peddling hoaxes about COVID-19 (like a theory that masks will activate the virus and getting vaccines in the past has made us more susceptible to the illness).
Behavioral experts aren’t surprised that these sorts of doubts and rumors are gaining traction. Conspiracy theories have existed forever. There are tons of question marks — about the origins of the virus, the global economy, our politicians, jobs and the future — making COVID-19 a prime target for these myths.
“People are drawn to conspiracy theories during periods of crisis and uncertainty, and this is certainly one of those times,” Karen Douglas, a professor of psychology at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, told HuffPost.
Here’s the psychology behind why conspiracy theories thrive and why they are so appealing to some people:
We like to connect the dots
Our brains naturally try to make connections about all the things going on in our lives and the world. We like stories and explanations, things that make sense. Mysteries don’t sit well with humans.
Joanne Miller, an associate professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware, said we call this “connecting the dots.” Sometimes those dots should be connected, other times, they should not.
When a negative or scary event occurs, we try to understand and explain the reasons behind said event. “In seeking out explanations … we may very well make connections between things that shouldn’t be connected and create a narrative, and sometimes those narratives end up being conspiracy theories,” Miller said.
5G cell towers are a good example of this, Miller said. The towers started appearing in Wuhan, China — the original epicenter of COVID-19 — around the same time the virus broke out. People drew a connection between these two events that are not actually connected in any way, and the conspiracy theory that 5G towers spread the coronavirus was born.
People aren’t fans of uncertainty
As Douglas said, people are pulled into conspiracies during periods of uncertainty. By connecting dots, conspiracy theories take the unknown out of the equation and give people a sense of control. Even if the belief is untrue, having some sort of explanation for what’s going on can be incredibly soothing.
The reality of the situation is that COVID-19 was naturally caused, and we don’t know how to stop it from spreading yet. That’s a scary thing. If a person believes 5G towers caused COVID-19, they have something concrete to fight rather than feeling like they’re fumbling around in the dark.
“People are looking for answers that explain this terrible situation. They are worried and uncertain, and also confused by the information they are receiving ― which is often contradictory ― from different sources,” Douglas said.
Douglas, who has studied the psychology behind conspiracy theories, added that people who may feel powerless or anxious turn to conspiracy theories to feel safe and secure in the world.
Miller, who’s been collecting data on COVID-19 conspiracy theories, has found that people who believe one conspiracy theory are likely to believe others too. They form a belief system, she said, that’s largely woven together by uncertainty. They’re also less likely to be resilient.
Past research shows people also use conspiracy theories to protect their ideologies and the groups they belong to and identify with.
In her recent research, Miller said she found Republicans are more likely to believe in COVID-19 conspiracy theories right now. (For example, the Trump administration’s efforts to link the coronavirus to a Chinese lab have fueled a number of theories about its origins.)
Miller said that this is likely not because Republicans are more conspiracy-minded in general, but because they have a particular need to protect or bolster their worldview right now since their party — and elected president — is the one pushing the narrative. Miller also noted that all partisanships are susceptible to conspiracy theories. If it affirms a person’s belief system, they’re more likely to trust it.
Social distancing may be fueling conspiratorial thinking
Other behavioral experts suspect that people who are socially isolated are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.
A study from Princeton University found that social exclusion is linked to dark, superstitious thinking. According to the researchers, this can create a wicked cycle — socially isolated people develop conspiracy theories, then share those ideas with friends and family, who exclude them for their conspiratorial thinking. Another report published earlier this year found that people who are ostracized are more likely to back conspiracy theories.
Layered onto all this is the fact that so many areas are under strict lockdowns and social distancing measures. People are seeing less of each other, they’re more isolated, more anxious and have more time for conspiratorial thinking.
“I think it is likely that, as social distancing continues and people feel more socially isolated, conspiracy beliefs might increase,” Douglas said.
Conspiracy theories can be dangerous and hard to combat
Conspiracy theories, when left unchecked, can trigger unnecessary destruction.
“Conspiracy theories are not trivial and can have potentially damaging effects on important facets of society,” Douglas said.
In the U.K. and the U.S., people have vandalized and attacked 5G towers. According to Douglas, past research shows people who believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to be associated with prejudice, violence and low-level crime. They’re also associated with being riskier when it comes to their health, often refusing to practice safe sex and not having their children vaccinated. Down the road, conspiracy theorists may refuse to get tested or get vaccinated (if and when a vaccine becomes available).
Conspiracy theories are hard to fight. Miller said there’s no “magic bullet” for combating them. It’s difficult to convince someone that their belief system — what’s bringing them peace and comfort — is bogus.
According to Miller, one thing we can all do to prevent the spread of conspiracy theories is to look for trusted, reliable information backed by facts and science. There’s a lot of misinformation out there right now, and before you send along a link, ask yourself: What are the sources for this information, and is this a resource I should really be trusting?
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