The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Conspiracy theories run rampant when people feel helpless. Like now.

A pandemic is an especially dangerous time for false information to spread.

A pedestrian wearing a protective mask walks past a street art mural depicting “Mass Hysteria” related to the covid-19 pandemic in Birmingham, England, last month. (Darren Staples/Bloomberg)

As the coronavirus pandemic has unfolded, conspiracy theories about the origins, threat and basic nature of the virus have become an increasingly visible and consequential element of the timeline. Conspiracy theories have tangible consequences for individuals and society, especially when they are sanctioned by trusted members of society, such as political, business and religious leaders. They can decrease people’s willingness to get vaccinated or comply with social distancing directives; they can also negatively impact people’s view of scientific findings and political out-groups. That means a pandemic is an especially dangerous time for conspiracy theories.

So why, exactly, do these bizarre ideas spread, especially among our relatives, friends and neighbors who otherwise seem like reasonable citizens who heed scientific evidence and make rational decisions about the health and safety of their families?

There is no shortage of covid-19 conspiracy theories, and they tend to follow the same patterns as conspiracy theories about other types of major events and public health crises. Some are infused with partisan politics, such as the idea that Democrats are strategically exaggerating the threat to hurt President Trump’s chances at reelection. Originally stoked by Trump, this idea has snowballed into even more fantastical claims about the absence of covid-19 patients in hospitals, death counts being inflated and even the very existence of the virus. Outside partisan politics, conspiratorial sentiments can combine with pseudoscience, resulting in conspiracy theories that covid-19 is a Chinese bioweapon, or that 5G technology, vaccines and genetically modified foods are part of a plot to spread the virus for purposes of controlling the masses. Still other conspiracy theories point the finger at wealthy philanthropists, such as Bill Gates, accusing such individuals of having released the virus or of using the pandemic to test vaccines on poorer populations. And, of course, nearly all conspiracy theories have an anti-Semitic variant, accusing Jews — especially, George Soros — of attempting to usurp power.

Conspiracy theories have been hinted at or outright endorsed by a wide swath of opinion leaders, from President Trump to Woody Harrelson and Kirstie Alley.

No, the coronavirus is not a biological weapon

Beliefs in conspiracy theories have roots in a number of social and political factors. For example, those who have stumbled upon misfortune are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories as a means of explaining their undesirable lot in life. Partisans — Democrats and Republicans alike — endorse conspiracy theories that malign the other party, or that have been championed by their own partisan and ideological leaders in the government and the media. The same goes for the devoutly religious: The altar can function as a bully pulpit for religious leaders to guide their parishioners toward misinformation and conspiracy theories.

These factors, and many more, are always capable of inflaming conspiracy beliefs, but which ones actually do depends on circumstances. During the coronavirus pandemic, a specific set of factors could be particularly relevant, even more than usual.

Psychologists have identified a number of psychological traits that are related to conspiracy beliefs, including the predisposition to see systematic patterns where there is only random noise or to interpret coincidence as intentional cause. But when it comes to a global pandemic — and the deaths, social isolation and collapsing economy that it has brought about — three other factors are key: uncertainty, anxiety and powerlessness.

Conspiracy theories, more than benign beliefs in wacky ideas about the Illuminati or aliens, actually do serve valuable psychological functions. They don’t merely entertain us; they could be used to comfort us. They are tools for imposing structure on an unpredictable and unforgiving world, thereby relieving stress and reducing anxiety.

The less people feel in control of their world, however meek or grand, the more likely they are to seek out some method of restoring control — to fight their sense of powerlessness. The covid-19 pandemic is the ultimate power grab: No one knows when the threat will subside, what the economic impact will be or when a vaccine will be available. When events are, in actuality, out of our control, the psychological burden can be alleviated by turning to alternative explanations for events. In this case, we might choose to believe that covid-19 is a Chinese bioweapon, created in a lab and intentionally spread to cause harm. Alternative explanations such as this not only explain why things are as they are, but also incorporate the fact that one has no control over the situation.

Conspiracy theories nicely meet these criteria. Admittedly, they are ill-defined, illogical and, usually, just plain bizarre. But conspiracy theories aren’t attractive to people because of these qualities, but rather for the subconscious functions they serve. A conspiracy theory can restore control — you know what happened and why, and you have the psychological relief to know that it was out of your control!

The story is similar when it comes to anxiety and uncertainty. The pandemic has increased people’s worries about their physical, mental and economic health in both the short term and distant future. Conspiracy theories cannot remedy these circumstances. However, they can explain why these horrible circumstances have manifested and provide peace of mind that they are of no fault of one’s own. Choosing to believe that the coronavirus is a hoax or that the threat has been strategically exaggerated for political purposes — two popular variants of covid-19 conspiracy theory — can reduce anxiety by playing down the severity of the circumstances. A purely psychological effect, to be sure — but, then again, we primarily live in our own heads.

No, impeachment didn’t ‘distract’ Trump from coronavirus

The coronavirus has manipulated these psychological states in a way that a laboratory experiment never could. Sure, we could ask subjects to think about a time when they felt powerless in reacting to an unexpected life event that was out of their control, or anxious about impending downsizing. We could even expose people to information designed to make them feel anxious, powerless or uncertain. These types of experiments tell us about the basic mechanisms at the heart of these psychological states, how they could potentially impact other beliefs and behaviors. But the pandemic has — in real time, in the real world — dialed each of these psychological states up to 11: the perfect storm, which should produce some of the most fertile breeding grounds for conspiracy beliefs that we are likely to actually observe.

This explains why surveys reveal that more than 30 percent of the American mass public expressed belief in at least one of many conspiracy theories about the origins and nature of the coronavirus. This polling was conducted in early and mid-March, a distant memory today, when the pandemic had just begun to find acceptance among governmental leaders and attention by the mainstream media.

Thirty percent may seem low. But consider two important caveats. First, beliefs with the potential to affect behaviors that are crucial to limiting the damage of the virus — social distancing, hand-washing, wearing masks in public — have the most impact at the outset of a global pandemic. Restricting the spread of the virus is key. Second, the psychological impact of the pandemic — in terms of anxiety, uncertainty and powerlessness — probably has only grown since these early polls, and it’s likely to continue to do so as the cumulative impact of the virus increases and the extent of the damage becomes clearer.

In this sense, the object of the conspiracy theories — the virus — is, itself, the source of the undesirable psychological states that promote beliefs in such conspiracy theories. In other words, coronavirus conspiracy beliefs are a self-fulling prophecy. Worse yet, it isn’t clear that engaging in conspiracy theorizing actually provides the emotional poultice people may unconsciously seek. For example, if people were to adopt the belief that coronavirus was an intentionally released bioweapon meant to kill them, they might not really sleep much better at night than they would if they didn’t think they knew where it came from.

This is not to say that our psyches, and the conspiracy theories they glom on to, are completely at the mercy of an unmanageable virus. Political and social leaders can combat pandemic-induced anxiety and uncertainty by visibly taking the threat seriously, including steps to promote public health and reduce the negative economic impact on people. Even merely demonstrating that they are working hard to address the crisis, offering encouraging forecasts can reduce anxiety and uncertainty, and avoiding engaging in conspiratorial rhetoric themselves could limit the likelihood of the mass public turning further toward conspiracy theories for relief.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

End of the public health emergency: The Biden administration ended the public health emergency for the coronavirus pandemic on May 11, just days after WHO said it would no longer classify the coronavirus pandemic as a public health emergency. Here’s what the end of the covid public health emergency means for you.

Tracking covid cases, deaths: Covid-19 was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States last year with covid deaths dropping 47 percent between 2021 and 2022. See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world.

The latest on coronavirus boosters: The FDA cleared the way for people who are at least 65 or immune-compromised to receive a second updated booster shot for the coronavirus. Here’s who should get the second covid booster and when.

New covid variant: A new coronavirus subvariant, XBB. 1.16, has been designated as a “variant under monitoring” by the World Health Organization. The latest omicron offshoot is particularly prevalent in India. Here’s what you need to know about Arcturus.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

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