The fact that many people hold conspiracy theory beliefs was brought into the spotlight during the COVID-19 pandemic, which raises the question: what makes people vulnerable to misinformation? A study published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that trusting science is a protective factor against conspiracy beliefs, while overconfidence in one’s own reasoning abilities is a risk factor.
Before the pandemic, many people thought conspiracy theories were wacky and sparsely believed. COVID-19, like many other crises, ushered in a time of uncertainty and brought conspiracy theories to the forefront of society, revealing that they’re more prevalent than it seemed. Believing in conspiracies is related to many different individual and societal factors, such as age, socioeconomic status, conservatism, and more. This study seeks to better understand these factors in regard to COVID-19 beliefs and delve into both stable and fluid characteristics that may have an effect.
For their study, Andrea Vranic and her colleagues utilized 755 participants recruited online. Participants ranged in age from 16 to 69. Data was collected during June 2020, after the initial COVID-19 lockdown, when numbers were relatively low, and it was uncertain if another wave would occur. Participants completed measures on demographic information, conservatism, trust in science/scientists, overconfidence in one’s own reasoning skills, and endorsement of COVID-19 related conspiracy theories.
Researchers in this study considered demographics to be stable characteristics, overconfidence and conservatism to be less stable, and trust in science to be an easily changed worldview. Results showed that the number one predictor of COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs was trust in science and scientists. The variance explained by this easy-to-change factor was 38%, which was the biggest effect by far.
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 worse performance on an objective measure of reasoning and greater endorsement of conspiracy theories.
“Our findings suggest that this widespread gullibility… even among the formally educated population is partly driven by the overconfidence in one’s own reasoning,” the researchers said. “Similar to biased thinking, this self-deception in the form of overestimating one’s own abilities has an adaptive value: it protects one’s self-esteem, prevents the negative consequences of adverse events, protects mental health, and potentially helps in deceiving others.”
Additionally, 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 highly effective way to reduce conspiracies around the pandemic and promote public health initiatives such as masking, vaccines, and more.
“We have shown that the overestimation of one’s own reasoning, alongside the lack of trust in science, contributes to the endorsement of epistemically suspect beliefs regarding the pandemic,” Vranic and her colleagues wrote. “Such beliefs have the opportunity to incur damage on a large scale. Their direct debunking rarely yields success, so determining and addressing the precursors of such beliefs might prove to be more opportune. Given a large amount of variance in COVID-19-related conspiratorial thinking explained by the (mis)trust in science/scientists, it seems that restoring this trust is the most promising route 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 took important steps into better understanding factors relating to COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that this study was administered online, which could lead to lack of attention or a lack of a fully representative sample. Additionally, this sample reported low levels of conspiracy belief, which could make pinpointing contributing factors more difficult.
The study, ““I Did My Own Research”: Overconfidence, (Dis)trust in Science, and Endorsement of Conspiracy Theories“, was authored by Andrea Vranic, Ivana Hromatko, and Mirjana Tonković.