COVID-19 has provided a perfectly fertile ground for conspiracy theories to grow and spread. Seemingly, everything and everybody from 5G-waves to Bill Gates has been condemned for its outbreak. While it is tempting to laugh these conspiracies off, their negative impact on the spread of the pandemic should keep us from doing so. Instead, we should attempt to understand their psychological root: the basic human need for security and structure.
2Pac is still alive, Area 51 is home to alien experiments, the Earth is flat, and Jay-Z is a member of the Illuminati. Although conspiracy theories have seemingly always been around, they appear to have found a novel center of attention: the coronavirus. Is it an artificial biological weapon or a result of 5G-waves? Is it part of a plot led by Bill Gates to vaccinate the world’s population, or was it imported into China by the US military?
With conspiracy theories, people explain a specific event or situation by blaming another group for causing it. Day by day, numerous new conspiracies around COVID-19 appear, and there is more than enough reason to take them seriously – not in terms of their content but because of their impact on society. Believing in conspiracy theories around the coronavirus has been shown to decrease institutional trust, the support of governmental regulations, and the adoption of physical distancing. Although some of the speculations are, admittedly, almost ridiculously funny, they have caused a lot of harm in the past and will continue to do so if ignored.
Why is a pandemic the perfect setting for conspiracy theories to thrive?
If you are just a little bit like me, you might also feel the need to escape reality every once in a while. However, no matter how hard you try, once you open your emails and are greeted by another variation of “I hope that you and your loved ones are healthy and safe during these uncertain and unprecedented times”, you will be reminded of the insecure and difficult reality we currently face. As much as we might want to distance ourselves from it, baking banana bread and rearranging the living room only helps to a certain degree. The pandemic has, so it appears, led to the rise of billions of banana bread, conspiracies and rumors.
There are several approaches to explain why people fall for such theories. Looking at the psychological background of conspiracists, a review conducted by the University of Kent has revealed three main factors which lead people to seek conspiracy theories. Namely, belief in conspiracy theories seems to be driven by epistemic (understanding one’s environment), social (maintaining a positive image of the self and the social group), and existential motives (being safe and in control of one’s environment). In the current context, existential motives deserve a closer look.
The human brain saves energy and time by using prior experiences to build patterns and structures which it can apply to novel situations. The ability to react fast and without too much effort has been essential for survival. While this pattern can also lead to negative prejudices and premature conclusions, it is a necessary mechanism: if we would have to consider every situation without prior knowledge, it would take us ages to do so.
COVID-19 has led almost everybody to experience a 180-degree change in their lives and environments. Unsurprisingly, the human brain often does not have the capacity to adapt to these changes. The numerous changes in our environment within such a limited amount of time, such as the inability to go to work or to hug your friends, can cause our brain to be a bit overwhelmed. This loss of control and structure is related to extreme stress for our brains. Although some people manage to handle this stress and quickly adapt to their new living situation, others require explanations for the changes to be able to, again, make sense of their situation.
Conspiracy theories, as extraordinary as they may seem, provide their believers with a form of control.
For some people, it is easier to accept the idea that the virus was developed to suppress the public than to face the reality of an unseizable, unpredictable danger. Conspiracy theories, as extraordinary as they may seem, provide their believers with a form of control. By giving a broad and internally consistent explanation, they allow them to preserve their beliefs. Especially in uncertain times, it is the seeking for control and a full understanding of the situation which drives people to believe in conspiracy theories, although almost unbelievable.
How to use this information?
We all have different realities, depending on our social and digital environment. While you might be confronted with science-based information, your neighbor’s belief that the virus was invented to hold the public down might be confirmed. Normally, we could laugh about these differences and ignore them; however, in times where life depends on the adherence to protective measures, it is urgent to take them seriously.
Since there is no vaccine for conspiracy theories, each individual needs to be aware of their impact and take action. Not all confrontation with friends and family, even fewer strangers, is worthwhile. Still, as soon as you see some potential for improvement, there are conversation strategies which might help you to overcome conspiracists’ boundaries. Most importantly, it is essential to take a non-confrontational approach to avoid pushing affected people further into the rigid belief system.
The understanding that conspiratorial tendencies are not a sign of stupidity, or even evilness, but oftentimes a result of seeking security and stress-relief can help to start the discussion from a more affable position. It requires a lot of empathy and patience to find a balance of showing understanding for the origin of conspiracists’ beliefs while questioning their thoughts and statements, but the effort can pay off.
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