Why do conspiracy theories increase during pandemics? We look at past pandemics & the psychology behind why people create conspiracy theories.
Show Notes: For those who prefer to read rather than watch
Today we’re going to be talking about conspiracy theories and why conspiracy theories increase during pandemic times.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not the world’s first plague. We’ve always had them through history, and every pandemic has its conspiracy theory. It’s sort of like you, “You get a theory, and you get a theory, and you get a theory.”
Let’s start with the Black Death in the 14th century over in France. The theory at that time was that Jewish people were on the payroll of a particular Muslim Prince, and they had conspired with lepers to contaminate community wells as a way to take out all of the Christians. Now you can imagine this didn’t end up well for anybody with leprosy or anybody Jewish in that particular area.
The Spanish Flu from 1918 to 1920 apparently was caused by German submarines spreading a German bioweapon. So biowarfare and weaponised pandemic conspiracy theories were rife back in the 1918s.
Then when we look at AIDS in the 1980s. Apparently, the KGB started this particular rumour, and it went right around the world, that AIDS was a bioweapon created by the USA that was being tested on gays and prison population and somehow escaped. Then the American CIA blamed Africa to try and hide their tracks.
Ebola in the 1990s. Again, the USA and the UK apparently created a bioweapon that escaped into society.
The bottom line is every plague gets its own conspiracy theory.
But what’s a conspiracy theory in the first place?
A conspiracy theory is where there’s a belief that a specific group of people clandestinely band together to take down another group or an institution or a country.
The scale of the conspiracy theory is linked to Proportionality Bias. What that means is if there’s a small event, we only have a little conspiracy theory. If there’s a big event, we believe that there has to be a bigger cause, which means bigger conspiracy theories.
So, a big event like a pandemic requires a much bigger conspiracy theory.
Linked to that is when conspiracy theories are formed, people tend to look at correlation, not causation of events.
What that means is people look for a couple of events that happen around the same time as the big event they are looking for a reason for, and then they try to join the dots together. But they try and join the dots together saying that one thing causes the other to occur, which may or may not be true.
An example is looking at the consumption of ice cream. The consumption of ice cream increases at the same time that the number of drownings increases. So, therefore, the consumption of ice cream causes drownings. That’s an example of correlation versus causation. Ice cream consumption tends to increase in summer, which is when more people tend to go swimming, which is why there are more drownings in summer. That’s why there’s a correlation between those two, not a causation factor.
But why do people cause create conspiracy theories?
There are three main psychological reasons why people create conspiracy theories.
1) They’re looking for understanding and certainty in trying and confusing times.
2) There’s a desire for control and security.
3) They desire to maintain their positive self-image.
Understanding and certainty
Looking for why is also known as cognitive closure in the industry. What happens is people look for answers to why something happens.
Any parent of a two-year-old will tell you that “Why?” is the most popular question they get asked. “But why? But why? Why is the sky blue? Why is this, why is that? Why, why, why, why, why? “
Humans want to know why. We want cognitive closure to understand why things happen the way they do.
It’s happened throughout history from when people wondered why crops failed, right the way through to now, which is where people want to know, “Why is there a pandemic?”
People want to find out why.
But when we look for answers, we look for answers that make us feel comfortable, give us comfort, and that reinforce our particular world view.
If we get an answer that doesn’t match how we view the world or our core values, we discount it so that the answer we seek has to match our particular world view.
Control and security
Humans want to feel in control at all times. We want to believe that what we do matters, and we want to feel like we’ve got some control or say in things.
If things are out of our control, we want to believe that there’s some sort of higher power that has our back or is looking out for us.
The reason being that we want to believe that bad things will only happen to bad people (and when it does it’s called karma).
When bad things happen to good people, it creates cognitive dissidence for us, and it creates confusion. When we feel out of control, we feel uncomfortable, and that creates mental problems for us.
So, therefore, we want to believe that if things are out of our control, that a higher power has a reason behind the act. We want to believe that God makes no mistakes, and that there is a reason behind this situation.
People who are more marginalised tend to believe more in conspiracy theories. If you’re in the marginalised sections of society, you tend to look for a conspiracy theory to help you understand why you are marginalised.
Doing that digging to find why brings you to a community that fosters belonging. You head down a particular conspiracy rabbit warren and then join internet groups where you find people that you can talk to about similar things.
In these groups you find a sense of community and belonging, which is why people join societies, religious groups, and what have you. People want to belong. That’s a human need.
The whole thing is that they feel that when they get into that community, they’re getting access to privileged information that only they know or people in the community know. If everybody else knew it, it would be better for society.
There’s another psychological concept called confirmation bias which then comes into play. This means that when they look at these topics, and they talk about them in their groups, information that reinforces their existing beliefs is the stuff that they’ll focus on and they will ignore other or fresh information that doesn’t match their beliefs.
Mistrust and conspiracy theories
The other point to know is that when there’s a high mistrust in government or science, then conspiracy theories flourish. People often don’t understand science, so they distrust it. If the government hasn’t communicated well what they’re doing or if people don’t understand why the government is doing what it is doing, it creates mistrust.
If there’s a high level of mistrust, increased conspiracy theories happen. That’s because people want to have certainty and they want answers, and in the absence of information, people make stuff up.
They’ll make their own reasons about why things are happening based on their personal worldview as a way to feel like they are getting back into control.
They feel that finding their own answers and doing stuff like hoarding toilet paper is needed to help them do something positive for themselves in an out of control world.
That’s the reason why conspiracy theories tend to flourish during pandemics. Because people don’t understand why it’s happening. They see bad things happening to good people and it’s shaking their worldview.
What are some of the current conspiracy theories?
If you pop over to Wikipedia, which is a fabulous resource, there’s an entire section, about 60 pages worth, of misinformation related to the 2019-2020 coronavirus pandemic. It’s worth looking at just to see what’s out there.
Some of the main ones doing the rounds.
1) It’s the apocalypse and the end of times, which means we shouldn’t be doing anything at all. We should be actively encouraging the spread of the virus to remove more people to allow the end times to happen. (I will let you know if the end of times happen)
2) It’s a bioweapon that’s gotten out of hand. Who created this bioweapon? It depends on the country that you’re living in.
If you’re in the USA, the UK or India, apparently, it’s China that created the bioweapon, and it got out of hand.
If you’re in Iran or Russia, apparently the US created the bioweapon, and it got out of hand.
If you’re in China, apparently the CIA in the USA created the bioweapon and released it and it got out of hand.
And the Canadians also get a look in at one particular point with the who created it theorists. (All of these are blatantly false).
3) Another conspiracy theory is this was created by vaccine sellers to sell more vaccines. Remember we talked about Proportionality Bias? If you’ve got a big event, you need a bigger answer or a bigger why.
You could imagine right now that the anti-vaxxers should be challenging their thinking, saying, “This is what the world looks like without vaccines.”
But what they’re saying because of Confirmation Bias, is that the pandemic was caused by vaccine manufacturers trying to sell more vaccines. (Blatantly false)
4) The next conspiracy theory doing the rounds is apparently Bill Gates is going to create the vaccine, and he’s going to embed a microchip in it to control all of humanity. Another excellent example of Proportionality Bias and another false story.
5) Then we’ve got the 5G conspiracy theory. So apparently with this theory, the Coronavirus is spread by 5G. Droplets do not spread it, it’s spread by 5G (which is blatantly false!)
This one’s worrying because around the world what we’re seeing is people are burning 5G towers. They don’t realise at the moment when everybody is locked down, those towers quite often are the primary sources of community telecommunications for hospitals, and for people trying to work from home.
6) We’re also starting to see conspiracy theories about disease spreaders, and they’re all about reinforcing racist stereotypes. So, for example, the UK and India are both blaming Muslims for the spread of the Coronavirus, and we’re starting to see a lot of aggression towards Muslim people in those countries.
In English speaking countries, the blame heads to anybody who looks vaguely Asian whether they’ve lived in China or not, whether they’ve travelled or not, doesn’t matter. Apparently, Asians are all to blame with that conspiracy theory, which is all just about reinforcing racist stereotypes.
Iran, of course, is blaming the Jews for spreading the virus.
7) Another conspiracy theory is that it’s a Boomer Cull or population cull depending on which parts of the internet you wander down. Bill Gates gets a mention in this theory as well, but apparently the virus was released as a deliberate strategy to reduce the population in the world. (Another blatantly false theory).
Conspiracy theories are not harmless.
While it’s easy to have a bit of a giggle at conspiracy theories, they’re not harmless at all.
These conspiracy theories are NOT harmless beliefs. Conspiracy theories can be quite dangerous and can create problems for the rest of society.
What we see with conspiracy theories is that the more the conspiracy theories increase, there’s increased aggression by individuals and society as a whole.
People feel that societal norms are breaking down, and they feel it’s OK to become aggressive towards marginalised groups. That is why we’re seeing racist attacks. We’re seeing people use it as an excuse to embed their racism.
Another problem is that people who believe in conspiracy theories tend to be to less likely to support wider community efforts to reduce or contain the virus.
So anti-vaxxers who believe that this is just a ploy by big pharma to push their vaccines, are less likely to get vaccinated and to have their children vaccinated, which reduces the effectiveness of virus control measures in the general population.
If they are the apocalyptic and end of times people, they’re more likely to indulge in behaviours that encourage the spread of the virus rather than reduce the spread.
Some researchers looked at conspiracy theories and showed people who were not conspiracy theorists a simple two-minute video. What they found was that this simple video has lasting results on the people. People that were shown the video were less likely to donate to charities in the six months after viewing the video
What do we do about conspiracy theories?
Each one of us has a role in tackling conspiracy theories depending on our mental bandwidth.
For example, if we see racist behaviours, then we need to reinforce that it’s un-Australian or “this is not how we do things in our society”. We want to tread on these behaviours early and reinforce positive social norms. We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
We also want to teach critical thinking skills to our kids. Researchers have found that having critical thinking skills and the ability to look at conspiracy theories and to assess whether they are true or not, determines whether someone gets caught up in them.
We also want to monitor our own internet use. It’s very, very easy for a friend to invite us to a Facebook group filled with conspiracy theorists. I can’t tell you how many of my wonderful friends have invited me to the 5G or anti-vaccination ones. I love you all dearly, but no thanks!
Just monitor your own internet use and make your own choices. That might mean muting friends on Facebook or Twitter for a time. It might mean unfollowing or unfriending if you need to for your own mental sanity. But make your own choices about where you go on the internet and who you engage with.
A lot of researchers say that you cannot argue with a dyed-in-the-wool conspiracy theorist person because that entrenches their belief. It embeds their thinking.
The people that you can help to question and adjust their thinking are people who are just in the early stages of heading down the conspiracy theory path.
It’s just like religious radicalisation. It’s very hard to bring an extremely radical person back. It’s easier to stop the radicalisation occurring in the early stages.
The main thing for yourself is to go back to your own big three questions.
You will also be looking for understanding and certainty. So right now, the thing is to go and understand what COVID-19 is. Look at valid scientific research. Look at WHO, look at the CDC in the USA, look at Dr Norman Swan from the ABC in Australia.
Get valid information to help you to get certainty and understanding about what is happening.
Next, you need to get control and security. What that means is for you to take control of your own household. Take control of your own processes of when and how you go out into the world.
Look at that whole picture and work out what you can do to make yourself feel better, more in control and more secure.
Link back to your bigger reason “Why” – your own personal reason of why do you exist. Because if you don’t have a big why, that’s when you start to question and start to look and be swayed by other people.
Finally, build your positive self-image and find and stay part of your community. Stay connected. Do whatever it takes with ridiculous amounts of self-care at this point in time to help you to maintain your positive self-image no matter what is buffeting you around.
In conclusion, in this session, we’ve talked about how about every pandemic has its own conspiracy theory. We’ve talked about what are conspiracy theories. We’ve talked about why they proliferate in pandemics.
We’ve talked about the reasons why people create conspiracy theories, and we’ve talked about some of the most common ones for this pandemic, and we’ve talked about how to come out the other side.