COVID-19 has become one of the defining global events of the decade. It has affected more lives than nearly any other phenomenon of the 20th century, and has become critically embedded in many nations’ culture and psyche. It is also a largely negative phenomenon, one which is still not well understood (by laypersons and scientists alike) and shrouded in misinformation. It is thus a perfect breeding ground for conspiracy theories, of which there is no shortage.
To better understand the relation between COVID-19 conspiracy theories and one of the fulcrums upon which human behaviors hinges—concern for oneself versus concern for others—researchers from Australia, Italy, France and Germany collected data from 4245 participants in eight nations (the authors’ countries of origin, plus the Netherlands, Spain, the UK and the USA). Their results are published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.
As the authors note, it is a well-documented phenomenon that conspiracy theorists tend to demonstrate greater concern, alienation, mistrust and anger. “What is unclear is the extent to which this concern, alienation, mistrust and anger is focused on collective versus personal welfare.” That is, are conspiracy theorists benevolently concerned for their neighbors’ safety or primarily concerned for their own (even at the expense of others’)?
The authors defined two main elements of self- vs. other-focused concern for wellbeing. First, the kinds of behaviors individuals engaged in: hand-washing is both self- and other-protecting, while stockpiling is clearly selfishly motivated. Second, greater concern that “I will die” vs. “someone close to me will die.” The authors measured, in addition to these behaviors and concerns, belief in general and specific conspiracy theories regarding COVID-19.
The results of the study demonstrate that individuals who hold conspiracy theories about COVID-19 are more likely to be motivated by self-concern, even to the detriment of their neighbors. Conspiracy theorists were, in general, more likely to practice hoarding, (predictably) less likely to endorse vaccination, and less concerned with the welfare of those close to them. This lack of concern partly mediated the aforementioned behaviors.
The authors note some limitations: data was drawn from Western, industrialized nations, was entirely self-reported, and is correlational in nature, so no claims can be made about whether egotism drives conspiracy theories or vice versa.
Science and history tell us that vaccination is an effective weapon in the war against viral infection, as are prosocial behaviors like social-distancing and mask-wearing. Understanding why such significant portions of the world’s population acts contrary to these truths will be critical in curbing such behaviors on a large scale and effectively terminating the current global pandemic.
The study, “To what extent are conspiracy theorists concerned for self versus others? A COVID‐19 test case“, was authored by Matthew J. Hornsey, Cassandra M. Chapman, Belen Alvarez, Sarah Bentley, Bruno Gabriel Salvador Casara, Charlie R. Crimston, Octavia Ionescu, Henning Krug, Hema Preya Selvanathan, Niklas K. Steffens, and Jolanda Jetten.