Why are so Many People turning to Conspiracy Theories to Explain Covid-19?
By Dr Becky Spelman
Throughout human history, people have struggled to make sense of anything that is experienced as unknown or unpredictable. Often, we attribute anything we do not understand to the supernatural. “An act of God” is a term still used by the insurance industry to describe events so unusual that they could not have been foreseen; it is usually applied to natural disasters.
Now that the world is grappling with the novel disease Covid-19, a lot of people are turning to conspiracy theories to provide them with the explanations and certainties that they desperately crave to make sense of it.
Researcher Karen Douglas of the University of Kent studies the psychology of conspiracy theories, which typically seek to explain phenomena often experienced as puzzling or frightening by claiming that they are the result of a secret plan by a powerful group of people. Over the years, there have been countless conspiracy theories about groups such as the Masons, about the government, about particular cultural, ethnic, or religious groups, industries such as “Big Pharma”, and so on. These theories can be harmless, but they can also be extremely dangerous. For example, when a particular ethnic or cultural group is blamed for a stressful situation, this can inspire people to engage in violence against them. In another case, the theory that western governments were using vaccination programmes in Africa to secretly sterilise women resulted in a reduction in children being presented for vaccination, and a subsequent surge in preventable illness.
Currently, the social media is swirling with conspiracy theories about Covid-19, which is variously attributed to governments or other figures who want to use it to frighten people into accepting vaccines that will involve inserting microchips to control populations, to the idea that China deliberately created and released the virus to weaken western governments, and much more.
What makes conspiracy theories so attractive, and why do so many people believe in them?
Even though conspiracy theories can be dangerous, they can serve some psychological needs. Human beings typically hate uncertainty, and will go to great lengths to gain a feeling of control over their environment or situation. Conspiracy theories thrive in uncertain circumstances. When we are confronted with a scary situation, such as the possibility of getting sick with a new disease that is still imperfectly understood, it is tempting to gain a sense of control over it by subscribing to a belief system that claims to have access to “the truth” or “the real story”. Conspiracy theories can also provide a degree of comfort in being part of an in-group (those who believe in and propagate the conspiracy theory) while others ignore the theory or refuse to believe that it is true.
Conspiracy theories are fascinating to psychologists, folklorists, anthropologists, and other scholars, but they can have serious consequences. Today, we are dealing with the risk that those who subscribe to conspiracy theories about Covid-19 will fail to follow health advice, elevating the potential for harm to themselves and others. If they believe that doctors and the pharmaceutical industry are “in on it”, they may tend to avoid potentially life-saving medicine. In other words, tempting as conspiracy theories can be, they can also be very dangerous—especially when we are genuinely facing risk.
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Karen M. Douglas, Robbie M. Sutton, and Aleksandra Cichocka, “The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories”, Current Directions in Psychological Science 2017, Vol. 26(6) 538–542.
Karen M. Douglas, Joseph E. Uscinski, Robbie M. Sutton, Aleksandra Cichocka, Turkay Nefes, Chee Siang Ang, Farzin Deravi, “Understanding Conspiracy Theories”, Advances in Political Psychology, Vol. 4, Issue S1.
Why are so Many People turning to Conspiracy Theories to Explain Covid-19? was last modified: June 14th, 2020 by Dr Becky Spelman
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