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What has the Covid-19 pandemic taught us about the psychology of conspiracy theories?

Professor Jovan Byford (School of Psychology & Counselling, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, The Open University) about the Covid-19 in relation to the psychology of conspiracy theories

What has the Covid-19 pandemic taught us about the psychology of conspiracy theories?

Two years ago this week, at the very start of the current pandemic, the World Health Organisation warned that as well as the COVID-19 outbreak, the world was battling an ‘infodemic’: the abundance of false or misleading information about the origins, scale, and consequences of the pandemic. An important symptom of this ‘infodemic’ were various conspiracy theories proliferating on the internet– about 5G masts, Bill Gates and the ‘plandemic’, bioweapons and so on – which fuelled mistrust in health authorities and threatened to undermine the public health response.

From the outset, COVID-19 conspiracy theories attracted considerable interest from the media, who tended to discuss them either as a manifestation of the power of social media in the digital age, or as a psychological problem, with reports focusing on some people’s vulnerability to the seductive power of conspiracy narratives in times of crisis.

With this is mind, it may be interesting to consider the lessons of the pandemic for how psychologists study conspiracy theories. As someone who has researched conspiracy theories for over twenty years, I believe that the pandemic brought into question some well-established assumptions about the psychology of conspiracy beliefs and highlighted several theoretical and methodological challenges faced by psychologists interested in this topic.

The quest for a conspiracy ‘mentality’

The fundamental assumption underpinning much of psychological research on conspiracy theories conducted over the past three decades has been that people differ in their ‘general tendency’ or ‘predisposition’ to endorse conspiracy theories, and that there is such a thing as a conspiracy ‘mentality’ or ‘mindset’ (Imhoff et al, 2022). Numerous studies have sought to identify variables that account for this difference in this predisposition or susceptibility, usually by measuring the strength of association between the belief in conspiracy theories (as measured by scales specifically designed for this purpose), and some other variable.  A whole array of factors has been looked at, including personality, authoritarianism, sense of powerlessness, anxiety, superstition, need for certainty, but also age, gender, class, political outlook, and so on (see Douglas, Sutton and Cichocka, 2017 for a recent review).

I have offered a broader methodological critique of this approach to the study of conspiracy theories elsewhere (Byford 2011, 2014), including in some material I wrote for the OU module DD210 Living psychology: from the everyday to the extraordinary. There I questioned the validity and relevance of a research agenda solely focused on uncovering more and more variables that appear to explain miniscule amounts of variability in the belief in conspiracy theories. I have also argued that the individual difference approach to conspiracy theories – which assumes that everyone in the world can be located somewhere on the continuum between credulity and scepticism – rests on a set of problematic assumptions about what it means to ‘believe’ in a conspiracy theory and what it is that conspiracy theory scales measure.

Perhaps more importantly, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, it quickly became apparent that all the knowledge about the supposed ‘conspiracy mentality’ that had accumulated over the years has little practical purpose. The focus on factors that appear to be associated with the strength of conspiracy beliefs told us nothing about how to respond to the rise in pandemic-related conspiracy theories, or how to build resilience to misinformation. In a widely cited article on the role of social and behavioural sciences in supporting COVID-19 pandemic response, which was published in 2020, the section on conspiracy theories consisted of little more than a series of questions and a catalogue of gaps in knowledge yet to be filled (van Bavel et al. 2020). Existing research, it transpired, had little to offer.

From studying conspiracy theorists, to studying conspiracy theories

One thing that COVID has taught us (or ought to have taught us) is that what distinguishes believers from sceptics – which has been the focus of much psychological research to date – is maybe not the most important question when it comes to conspiracy theories. Rather than focusing on why some people believe in conspiracy theory and others don’t, maybe we should be asking how and why, in moments of crisis and turmoil, everyday thinking – even of some otherwise perfectly reasonable people – becomes contaminated by the characteristics of the elusive ‘conspiracy mentality’. Put differently, the main object of analysis should not be the mind or disposition of believers in conspiracy theories, but conspiracy theories as a broader social phenomenon, as a dynamic set of ideas which people draw on – especially in times of crisis – as they make sense of the world around them. Why did conspiracy theories appeal to so many people over the past two years? What are the broader societal factors that contribute to their perceived respectability in times of uncertainty?

Moreover, during the pandemic it became obvious that people engage with conspiracy theories in complex and diverse ways that cannot be captured by questionnaire studies. Psychology of conspiracy theories views ‘belief’ as a quantifiable, one-dimensional, measurable entity. Yet a conspiracy theory is never expressed as a mere statement of belief. It is always as a stance in an argument, a rhetorically intricate accomplishment that cannot be reduced to a single dimension of ‘belief’.

For instance, conspiracy theories about COVID-19 can influence behaviour – such as vaccine take-up, or adherence to distancing measures – even among people who do not believe them to be literally true. I am sure that we have all encountered over the past couple of years people who, while not necessarily ‘believing’ in conspiracy theories about COVID, nevertheless deemed them a legitimate view for other people to hold, and a stance that cannot be dismissed outright. Or people who argued that conspiracy theories, while far-fetched, capture some broader truth about how the world works, or at least ask legitimate questions. These stances have been completely overlooked in psychological research because they do not fit with the believer-sceptic continuum. And yet, they are crucial because what drives conspiracy theories in times of crisis are not the often-marginalised communities of committed believers who protest publicly or spend endless hours disseminating conspiracy theories on the internet. Much more important is the broader slippage in the boundaries of acceptable opinion which gives conspiracy theories an aura of respectability and legitimacy.

Should we remain ‘neutral’ when it comes to conspiracy theories?

The second lesson of COVID has to do with psychologists’ own position on conspiracy theories. Many psychologists have for a long time exhibited a surprising tendency to treat conspiracy theories as ideologically neutral, sometimes even with sympathetic understanding. Although authors typically acknowledged the dangers posed by certain kinds of conspiracy theories, they tended to regard them, more generally, with less disdain. For example, it is not uncommon to find in psychological literature the claim that because conspiracies do happen, at least some conspiracy theorists might be onto something (e.g. French and Brotherton, 2011, Douglas, 2011, Douglas and Sutton, 2011, Swami and Coles, 2010). Writers occasionally warned against using ‘pejorative terms’ when talking of conspiracy theorists (French and Brotherton, 2011), or refused to get involved in the discussion about whether a particular conspiracy theory is true. I was at a conference just before lockdown where a big name in the field proclaimed that all conspiracy theories should be regarded as unproven rather than untrue.  Occasionally, authors have gone as far as to suggest that conspiracist ideas possess some ‘positive aspects’ such as ‘providing alternative histories in periods of declining faith in traditional authorities’ (Swami et al, 2010, p.751).

This stance of political ‘neutrality’ has multiple causes. First, it reflects the researchers’ general reluctance to engage with conspiracy theories as a political project, with their ideological dimensions and historical legacy, focusing instead on conspiracy theories purely as a belief. Karen Douglas, probably the most prominent social psychologist of conspiracy theories in the UK, argued on one occasion that for psychologists it is irrelevant if a conspiracy theory is ‘true or false’, what matters is what leads some people to believe in them (Douglas, 2011). It is this focus on conspiracy theorists rather than theories that fosters agnosticism towards the latter. Second, the starting point of psychological research is that quite a lot of people believe in conspiracy theories. Writing on the subject often begins by reporting results of surveys and opinion polls, including those that found that most of the population believes in at least one conspiracy theory.  Such dramatic findings are used to highlight why conspiracy theories are an important topic for psychologists to study. But at the same time, dismissing outright beliefs that appear to be so widely held is politically awkward for the authors. For this reason, many psychologists have forgone social critique in favour of civility, and tolerance of conspiracy theories.

Covid appears to have changed this. The public, the media, politicians, and even some psychologists who had previously been ambivalent or agnostic towards conspiracy theories, have finally come to recognise conspiracy theories’ affinity for bad political causes and their potential to cause serious social and psychological harm.  Literature published on conspiracy theories over the past two years is indicative of this trend (e.g. Douglas, 2021).

But if I had to make a prediction, I would say that this will not be a permanent change. Attitudes towards conspiracy theories fluctuate, from widespread condemnation to ambivalence bordering on approval. So, I am confident that at some point in the next few years, someone will once again come up with the seemingly original idea that conspiracy theories are not as bad as people make them out to be, that conspiracy theories today are very different from those of the past, or that they play some important, even progressive social role. And they will claim that we need to engage with such theories more constructively. This has happened before, for instance in the early 2000s, and my book Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction (Byford, 2011) was in some sense a reaction and a response to that line of argument.

So maybe the main thing that COVID has taught us about the psychology of conspiracy theories is that, to become relevant, research in this area needs to embrace greater theoretical and methodological innovation. It certainly needs to reconsider some entrenched and hitherto seldom questioned assumptions about what conspiracy theories are, but also what is it about them that is worthy of investigation and critique.

REFERENCES

Byford, J. (2011). Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Byford, Jovan (2014). Beyond belief: the social psychology of conspiracy theories and the study of ideology. In: Antaki, Charles and Condor, Susan eds. Rhetoric, Ideology and Social Psychology: Essays in Honour of Michael Billig. Explorations in Social Psychology. London: Routledge, 83–94.

Douglas, Karen (2011). A social psychological perspective on conspiracy theories. Paper presented at the Centre for Inquiry’s Conspiracy Theories Conference, London, 25 September, 2011.

Douglas, Karen and Sutton, Robbie (2011) Does it take one to know one? Endorsement of conspiracy theories is influenced by personal willingness to conspire. British Journal of Social Psychology 50, no.3, 544–552.

Douglas, Karen, Sutton, Robbie M., Cichocka, Aleksandra (2017) The psychology of conspiracy theories. Current Directions in Psychological Science 26 (6), 538-542.

Douglas, Karen (2021). Are conspiracy theories harmless? Spanish Journal of Psychology, 24 . Article Number e13 https://doi.org/10.1017/SJP.2021.10

French, Chris and Rob Brotherton (2011). Conspiracy minded: The psychology of belief in conspiracy theories. Paper presented at the Centre for Inquiry’s Conspiracy Theories Conference, London, 25 September, 2011.

Imhoff, Roland, Zimmer, Felix, Klein, Olivier, Antonio, João H.C., Babinska, Maria, Bangerter, Adrian, Bilewicz, Michal, Blanuša, Nebojša, Bovan, Kosta, Bužarovska, Rumena, and others (2022). Conspiracy mentality and political orientation across 26 countries, Nat Hum Behav 6, 392–403.

Swami, Viren and Coles, Rebecca (2010). ‘The truth is out there.’ The Psychologist 23, no.7, 560-563.

Swami, Viren, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, T. and Adrian Furnham (2010). Unanswered questions: A preliminary investigation of personality and individual difference predictors of 9/11 conspiracist beliefs. Applied Cognitive Psychology 24, no.6, 749–761. Van Bavel, Jay .J, Baicker, Katherine., Boggio, Paulo.S. et al. (2020). Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response. Nat Hum Behav 4, 460–471 (2020).

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