Are COVID conspiracy theorists selfish?

Who are COVID conspiracy theorists worried about – themselves, or society? New data sheds some light

A study led by University of Queensland researchers and published in the European Journal of Social Psychology shows that COVID-19 conspiracy theorists are more concerned about their own health, and less about the health of others.

Professor Jolanda Jetten from the UQ School of Psychology said that the research found conspiracy theorists were also more likely to respond to the pandemic with self-focused strategies – rather than strategies which assist society as a whole, such as vaccination.

“People who more strongly endorsed COVID-19 conspiracy theories reported greater concerns about their own safety and lower concerns about the safety of close others, compared to people who didn’t endorse the conspiracy theories as strongly,” Professor Jetten said.

“Conspiracy theorists were more likely to focus on ways of helping themselves such as stockpiling, and less likely to respond to community-focused strategies like hand-washing and social distancing.

“Furthermore, people who believed conspiracies later reported more reluctance to take a COVID-19 vaccine, in part because of their relatively self-focused attitudes.”

The study involved surveying 4,245 participants from eight nations (Australia, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States). Three months later, the researchers re-contacted 1,262 participants from three nations (Australia, UK and US).

These were conducted between 17 March and 7 April 2020, “at a time when the epicentre of the COVID-19 crisis was in the industrialised West”.

They noted that a complexity around the issue is that some conspiracy theorists might be downplaying the severity of the pandemic, or believe it was fabricated, which would impact ratings of concern and any behaviours they might thus display. This was managed using a scale which asked them to forecast mortality.

The researchers found younger participants and female participants were more likely to endorse conspiracist thinking.

They found that conspiracist ideation in the first round predicted reluctance to receive a COVID-19 vaccination in the second, “mediated through relative concern for self versus other”.

“In sum, people who are high in conspiracy beliefs have relatively higher concern for the self relative to others, with troubling implications for public health,” the researchers warned.

“We started this research wanting to find out if COVID-19 conspiracy theorists are primarily motivated by concern for others – like social justice activists – or primarily concerned for themselves,” Professor Jetten said.

They noted that previous research had brought about a picture of conspiracy theorists as, “concerned, alienated, mistrustful, and angry” but had not made clear whether their behaviour was focused on collective concern.

“The overall picture suggested that compared to other people, conspiracy theorists are relatively self-oriented.”

Professor Matthew Hornsey from UQ’s School of Business said that, “Responsible behaviour from individuals — including widespread uptake of a vaccine — remains our best hope of defeating this and future pandemics”.

“Vaccine hesitancy is particularly strong among conspiracy theorists, and suspicion about the pending vaccines may be high enough to threaten herd immunity.

“Understanding this phenomenon may help inform interventions designed to increase societal resilience in the face of current and future pandemics.”

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