Bizarre COVID Conspiracies Linked To High Stress Levels: Rutgers Study

NEWARK, NJ — When the coronavirus pandemic was in its infancy, a wave of conspiracy theories – most of them now solidly debunked – flooded the internet and whispered their way through the grapevine. Some people suggested the virus arrived via asteroid from outer space. Some insisted that COVID-19 could be treated by breathing hot air from saunas or hairdryers.

But according to researchers at Rutgers University-Newark, other “bogus beliefs” aren’t so amusing in hindsight: such as curing COVID-19 by ingesting household cleaners such as bleach.

As America looks back on the fourth anniversary of the pandemic, Rutgers researchers recently attempted to answer a tricky question: Why do some people fall for conspiracy theories – and others don’t?

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The short answer? “Stress,” researchers said.

In 2020 – during the heart of the pandemic – psychologists Kent Harber and Valeria Vila wanted to know why “wildly erroneous beliefs, unfounded suspicions and rejection of scientific information and public health advice” was becoming so rampant.

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“Why were some people denying legitimate facts that could help them cope with this deadly pandemic?” they asked.

Harber and Vila ended up conducting two studies involving 750 adults across the United States. The participants reported on their daily life stress, chronic stress, depression and their COVID-specific stress. They also took a COVID Beliefs Survey, which included conspiracy theories as well as factual statements “based on science and public health guidelines.”

For example, participants were asked if COVID was a hoax designed to control the stock market, or serve as divine punishment for a sinful world. They were also surveyed on whether COVID could be cured by teas and essential oils. Meanwhile, they were also asked for their opinions on factual statements, such as the efficacy of handwashing or the prospect that the pandemic could continue for many months.

The results, which were recently published in the “Journal of Social and Political Psychology,” found that people with high levels of emotional distress – even distress unrelated to COVID – were more likely to embrace supernatural explanations for the pandemic, conspiracy theories and false remedies.

Highly distressed people are also more likely to deny COVID-related facts, such as the respiratory risk that the virus presented or the benefits of basic hygiene, the researchers said.

Harber and Vila found that different types of stress produced different outcomes. People with general-life distress, such as relationship tensions, financial worries and depression, more strongly endorsed false beliefs and denied facts. They were also more likely to engage in survivalist activities, such as buying guns and planning escape routes – which was readily reinforced by other conspiracy believers.

Researchers noted that people with “COVID-specific anxieties” were more likely to accept facts and follow recommendations from health experts, but still clung to bogus beliefs.

And when the pandemic hit, the confusion from everyone – including experts – only made things worse, Harber said.

“COVID was highly contagious, it could have long-lasting effects, and in some cases, it was fatal,” the Rutgers-Newark professor recalled. “And it seemed to come out of the blue. Experts didn’t know its cause, whether it was natural or human made, and the medical establishment and even the federal government initially issued contradictory advice.”

Fantastical beliefs, conspiracies and bogus cures can become seductively attractive when people feel afraid, confused or powerless, Harber added.

“As humans, we have a basic fight or flight response to threats,” he said. “You can’t hide from or beat up a virus. However, you can direct your fears against unpopular shadowy figures and groups who are supposedly conspiring in some nefarious ways.”

Luckily, there is a cure for the “infodemic,” the Rutgers researchers said: Hope.

As part of the studies, Harber and Vila also asked participants to report on their self-esteem and levels of social support, as well as their “hope, optimism and sense of purpose.” These psychological resources had an inoculating effect, they found – people with more of these resources were resistant to bogus beliefs and were less likely to deny COVID facts.

Ironically, some of the steps for weathering the pandemic – such as social distancing and school and work closures – deprived people of the very resources that would help them cope, Harber said.

Since the threat of another pandemic or catastrophe always looms in the future, it’s crucial that psychological coping mechanisms be considered in crisis situations, Harber contends.

“Having policies and practices that allow people to maintain their resources should be part of the coordinated response,” he suggested. “You have to address the psyche, not only the body.”

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