Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, conspiracy theories, predictably, have come out of the woodwork. And now, it seems, belief in such theories may be a detriment to the believer’s health and well-being – a new study has found that people who believe COVID conspiracies are more likely to test positive for the virus.
Devotion to a COVID conspiracy can affect and predict people's behavior and have long-term ramifications in their lives, the paper, published in Psychological Medicine found. As well as being more likely to turn out a positive test, people who believed in the theories were more likely to violate COVID restrictions and experience worse economic and social outcomes, as well as worsened general wellbeing.
“Even if a conspiracy theory is extremely implausible according to logic or scientific evidence, if it seems real to a perceiver, it has a genuine impact on attitudes, emotions, and behavior,” the team behind the study write.
We’ve already seen how COVID conspiracy theories can compromise individual, as well as public, health. A study last year found that 800 people died following one particular theory concerning a bogus treatment. And previous research has found that belief in pandemic-related conspiracies is linked to less support for restrictive measures, and greater vaccine hesitancy. But the long-term impacts of conspiracy beliefs on health behavior and well-being are much less studied.
To explore this, the team, led by social psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen, surveyed 5,745 people in the Netherlands, first in April 2020 and then again eight months later. The cohort were first asked to determine their level of belief in several popular conspiracy theories that COVID-19 is a bioweapon, a ploy to take away citizens’ rights, a hoax invented for financial gain, and/or a cover-up for the impending economic crash.
Then, in December 2020, participants were surveyed again, this time about their experience of the pandemic. Questions included had they ever been tested for the virus, was that test positive or negative, and had they ever broken COVID-19 regulations.
Their findings “suggest that conspiracy beliefs are associated with a myriad of negative life outcomes in the long run.” Those who believed in conspiracy theories, for example, were more likely to have tested positive for the virus. Although, as the team predicted, they were less likely to have been tested in the first place.
People believing COVID-19 conspiracies were also more likely to have received too many visitors in their home despite COVID restrictions and were likelier to have visited overcrowded parties, bars, or restaurants.
But while their socializing appears not to have been deterred, the same cannot be said for their finances. Conspiratorial thinkers were more likely to have lost employment over the eight-month study period and were more likely to suffer economic problems. They also experienced social rejection more so than non-conspiracy theorists, perhaps owing to their views.
“[P]eople low in conspiracy belief are more likely to reject people high in conspiracy belief rather than vice versa. Such intolerance of conspiracy believers is consistent with the notion that publicly endorsing conspiracy beliefs is stigmatizing and can decrease people's social support network,” the study authors write.
The links the study makes between conspiracy theory belief and individual outcomes are purely correlative, however. The causality of the findings cannot be determined and the suggestions made by the authors are purely speculative at this stage. The self-reporting nature of the survey is also a limitation, as is the relatively small number of COVID conspiracy theorists in the otherwise large cohort.
In spite of this, the authors still believe their results present evidence of the threat that belief in COVID-19 conspiracies poses to the individual in the long run.
“Conspiracy beliefs predict how well people cope with the challenges of a global pandemic, and therefore has substantial implications for private and public health, as well as perceivers' economic and social well-being,” the authors conclude.