Covid, Conspiracy Theories, and Basic Human Needs

Source: The Conversation

There has been a proliferation of conspiracy theories about COVID-19 that either reject the existence of the virus altogether. Many of these theories are highly implausible and harmful and it has become commonplace to describe them as irrational – even delusional. But it is not plausible to describe them as signs of mental illness. Quite the opposite — research has shown that many irrational beliefs are attempts to protect mental health by responding to the human need for control, understanding and belonging.

The most radical theory about COVID-19 is denialism: the virus does not exist or is not as dangerous as is commonly believed. For some deniers, COVID-19 cannot be caught at all because germ-based transmission itself is a myth. Other theories blame the quick and devastating proliferation of the virus on genetically modified crops or 5G technology. Why do people fall for a plot? At the bottom, a powerful drive for causal understanding, a way to navigate a novel environment. They may settle for an explanation before they have all the relevant information, because uncertainty is hard to tolerate.

It’s easier to blame a threat on “agents” they may already have reason to distrust. This is why various COVID-19 conspiracy theories blame “the Chinese” who have long been political targets in Europe and the US, or pharmaceutical companies whose influence is criticized by the anti-vaccine and anti-psychiatry movements. Seeing the event as planned rather than accidental allows people to maintain a sense of control over a reality that is confusing and unpredictable. This illusion of control contributes to our optimism about the future and helps us cope effectively with adversity.

Conspiracy theories tend to originate within so-called “epistemic bubbles” — social structures in which opposing voices are more or less deliberately excluded. Each bubble has its own standards to evaluate expertise and evidence. It may not be irrational (from their point of view) to endorse a theory that is consistent with their previous convictions and matches the testimony of others in their group. This typically happens in self-selected social media networks like Facebook groups or Twitter exchanges where those with a different view are blocked.

To counter the spread of conspiracy theories, we should find other ways to fulfill the needs from which they arise, such as the need for control or for causal understanding. Although we have no control over the fact that there is a pandemic, it can be empowering to realize that our behavior in response to it – such as wearing a mask or respecting social distance – can make a difference to its outcomes. And although experts cannot always provide the unfaltering certainties people crave, friendly and accessible scientific communication can help debunk conspiracy theories and satisfy the human desire for knowledge and understanding.

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