The fact that many people believe in conspiracy theory has come to light during the COVID-19 pandemic, raising the question: what makes people vulnerable to misinformation? A study published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that trusting science is a protective factor against conspiratorial beliefs, while overconfidence in one’s own reasoning abilities is a risk factor.
Before the pandemic, many people thought conspiracy theories were outlandish and not believed. COVID-19, like many other crises, has ushered in a period of uncertainty and thrust conspiracy theories to the forefront of society, revealing that they are more prevalent than meets the eye. Believing in conspiracies is linked to many individual and societal factors, such as age, socio-economic status, conservatism, etc. This study seeks to better understand these factors as they relate to COVID-19 beliefs and dig deeper into stable and fluid characteristics that may have an effect.
For their study, Andrea Vranic and her colleagues used 755 participants recruited online. The participants were between the ages of 16 and 69. The data was collected in June 2020, after the initial COVID-19 lockdown, when numbers were relatively low and it was uncertain whether another wave would occur. Participants completed measures on demographic information, conservatism, trust in science/scientists, overconfidence in one’s own reasoning abilities, and endorsement of conspiracy theories related to COVID-19.
The researchers in this study viewed demographics as stable characteristics, overconfidence and conservatism as less stable, and trust in science as an easily changeable worldview. The results showed that the number one predictor of conspiratorial beliefs related to COVID-19 was trust in science and scientists. The variance explained by this easy-to-modify factor was 38%, which was by far the largest effect.
Education was not related to differences in COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs. Overconfidence in one’s own reasoning abilities, on the other hand, was associated with poorer performance on an objective measure of reasoning and greater endorsement of conspiracy theories.
“Our results suggest that this widespread gullibility…even among the formally educated population is partly driven by overconfidence in one’s own reasoning,” the researchers said. “Similar to biased thinking, this self-deception in the form of overestimate oneself Abilities have adaptive value: they protect self-esteem, prevent the negative consequences of adverse events, protect mental health, and potentially help deceive others.
Moreover, the relationship between conservatism and conspiracy beliefs was partially mediated by trust in science.
These results are significant because they suggest that targeting trust in science could be a very effective way to reduce conspiracies around the pandemic and promote public health initiatives such as masking, vaccines, etc.
“We showed that overemphasis on one’s own reasoning, alongside lack of trust in science, contributes to endorsement of epistemically suspect beliefs about the pandemic,” Vranic and colleagues wrote. “Such beliefs have the potential for large-scale damage. Their direct debunking is seldom successful, so identifying and treating precursors to these beliefs may prove more expedient. Given a large amount of variance in conspiratorial thinking related to COVID-19 explained by (mis)trust in science/scientists, it seems that restoring this trust is the most promising avenue for planning interventions. However, in the case of COVID-19, it might be too late for the implementation of such a large-scale top-down intervention.
This study has taken important steps to better understand the factors related to conspiratorial beliefs related to COVID-19. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One of these limitations is that this study was administered online, which could lead to inattention or a lack of a fully representative sample. Additionally, this sample reported low levels of conspiracy belief, which may make it more difficult to identify contributing factors.
The study, “”I Did My Own Research”: Overconfidence, (Dis)trust in Science, and Apporsement of Conspiracy Theories”, was authored by Andrea Vranic, Ivana Hromatko and Mirjana Tonković.