Comprehensive coverage

Conspiracy theories don't make sense but they fulfill a basic human need that needs to be addressed

Psychological research has shown that many irrational beliefs are attempts to protect mental health by responding to the human need for control, understanding and belonging * Scientific, friendly and accessible communication can help educate conspiracy theorists and satisfy the human desire for knowledge and understanding without making up facts

Fight on Facebook about the corona vaccine. Illustration:
Fight on Facebook about the corona vaccine. Illustration:

By: Lisa Bortolotti, Professor of Philosophy, University of Birmingham, Anna Ichino, Postdoctoral Fellow in Philosophy, University of Milan

In the world, conspiracy theories about COVID-19 are spreading that reject the existence of the virus completely or doubt the official data about its origin, its rate of infection, its effects and antidote. Many of these theories are highly improbable and harmful, and many describe them as illogical - even delusional.

But it is unacceptable to describe them as signs of mental illness. On the contrary. Our 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 extreme theory about the COVID-19 epidemic is denial: the virus that causes it does not exist or is not as dangerous as is commonly believed. For some deniers, COVID-19 cannot exist at all because infection by viruses or bacteria is a myth. For others, it is "just a cold" and its apparently deadly effects are exaggerated. Powerful people and organizations (such as Bill Gates or Big Pharma) are considered responsible for the hype surrounding the epidemic for reasons ranging from making money to suppressing freedom.

Another popular theory denies that the virus passed from animals to humans accidentally. Instead they believe it was deliberately created by the Chinese in a laboratory in Wuhan. Other theories blame the rapid and destructive spread of the virus on genetically modified crops or the deployment of 5G technology.

All these theories share some common features. There is always some dark conspiracy that conflicts with official figures, and they are usually based on limited or dubious evidence. But these common traits are grounded in some basic needs that all humans share.

Looking for hope and an explanation

Why do people like conspiracy theories? Bottom line, the reason is that there is an explanation for causal understanding. When the situation is new or changing, people need a causal map to navigate the environment. They may settle for an explanation before they have all the relevant information, because uncertainty is difficult to tolerate. In an epidemic scenario, the explanation may be to fill a gap caused by doubt and division among experts. This is certainly the case with COVID-19. Scientists have disputed many aspects of COVID-19, from the severity of the threat to the effectiveness of face coverings (this is, of course, the scientific research process).

As our previous research highlighted, people tend to prefer explanations that refer to a person's intentions over explanations that present the event as an accident. In particular, they tend to place the blame on "agents" who they may already have reason to doubt. This is why various conspiracy theories of COVID-19 blame the "Chinese" who have long been political targets in Europe and the US, or pharmaceutical companies that are criticized by anti-vaccines and anti-psychiatric drugs.

Seeing the event as planned and not caused by mistake allows people to maintain a sense of control over a confusing and unpredictable reality. If there is someone to blame, we can restore some balance to the universe by demanding that the guilty be punished for their bad behavior. Also, we can prevent them from harming us next time. This illusion of control contributes to our optimism about the future and helps us deal effectively with adversity.

rejection of evidence

But why do people support a theory that is inconsistent with common sense even when the evidence for it is inconclusive? The conflict with an official version stems from distrust in institutions such as governments, scientists, the media and medical authorities. This distrust drives the belief in collusion and is central to the identity of groups that people already associate with.

Conspiracy theories tend to stem from "epistemic bubbles". These are social structures where opposing voices are, more or less, excluded on purpose. This usually happens in self-selected social media networks, such as Facebook groups or Twitter exchanges where people with a different position are blocked (excluded). Within these bubbles, theories about COVID-19 become something that defines who the people are and what they stand for.

Each bubble has its own standards to evaluate expertise and evidence. Conspiracy theorists do not trust statistics and for some of the COVID-19 deniers the experts are not epidemiologists but gurus of holistic health practices. If people are trapped in an alternative bubble it cannot be 'irrational' (from their point of view) to support a theory that is consistent with their prior views and is consistent with the testimony of others in their group. Theory is a way of imposing meaning on an ever-changing world.

This suggests that to deal with the proliferation of conspiracy theories, we must find other ways to fulfill the needs from which they arise, such as the need for control or causal understanding. Although we have no control over the fact that there is an epidemic, it should be made clear that our behavior in response to an epidemic - such as wearing a mask or respecting social distancing - can make a difference in its results. And while experts can't always provide the uncompromising certainty people crave, friendly, accessible scientific communication can help educate conspiracy theorists and satisfy the human desire for knowledge and understanding.

For an article in The Conversation

More of the topic in Hayadan:

4 תגובות

  1. Source: "For some deniers, COVID-19 cannot be caught at all because germ-based transmission itself is a myth".
    Translation: "For some deniers, COVID-19 (something is missing here. Maybe "can't") exist at all because infection by viruses or bacteria is a myth. "

    So either they changed the original text, or there is a misunderstanding on the part of the translator.

Leave a Reply

Email will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismat to prevent spam messages. Click here to learn how your response data is processed.