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A British study published in Psychological Medicine suggests that the endorsement of conspiracy beliefs about COVID-19 may be more widespread than expected. Furthermore, this lack of trust in public health information could be impeding the country's efforts to slow the spread of the virus.

When navigating a public health emergency like the coronavirus pandemic, collective action by everyday citizens is crucial. Conspiracy claims about the virus that continue to circulate may have an impact on citizens' interpretation and acceptance of public health guidelines.

Study author Daniel Freeman and his team suggest that the very conditions created by the pandemic form an ideal ground for the emergence of conspiracy theories. "Uncertainty about the future is widespread," the authors express. "Expectations about everyday life have changed rapidly and dramatically . . . Normal routines and plans have been thwarted." The ongoing pandemic not only threatens people's physical health but poses a threat to mental well-being and financial security, leaving people feeling increasingly vulnerable.

Freeman and colleagues set out to explore the prevalence of COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs among the British population and to see whether these beliefs would be associated with a lower likelihood of following government guidelines for slowing the virus.

A sample of 2,501 residents of England, with an average age of 46, completed an online survey that assessed their support for various conspiracy explanations about COVID-19 — some general (e.g., "The virus is a hoax"), and some specific (e.g., "The elite have created the virus in order to establish a one-world government."). Subjects were also asked to rate how often they followed six specific guidelines recommended by the government and to rate their likelihood of accepting a medical test or vaccine for the virus in future.

Results revealed substantial support for conspiracy thinking about the pandemic. As the researchers describe, "Approximately 50% of this population showed little evidence of conspiracy thinking, 25% showed a degree of endorsement, 15% showed a consistent pattern of endorsement, and 10% had very high levels of endorsement."

Interestingly, the way respondents obtained their information about the virus impacted their likelihood of endorsing conspiracy beliefs. Getting most of one's information from friends, social media, or YouTube were each associated with increased support for both general and specific coronavirus conspiracy beliefs. Obtaining the majority of information from the British Broadcasting Corporation, on the other hand, was associated with decreased support for general and specific coronavirus conspiracy beliefs.

As expected, support for conspiracy beliefs about the pandemic was correlated with lower compliance with each of the government guidelines. It was also linked to decreased self-reported likelihood of accepting a coronavirus diagnostic test or vaccination in the future.

As the authors say, the findings were telling. "The results are illuminating but dispiriting: a substantial minority of the population endorses unequivocally false ideas about the pandemic. Only half the population showed little evidence of conspiracy thinking."

Comment: The authors (naturally) are trying to make this sound like a bad thing! However, one could also say that the results are encouraging and that a substantial portion are at least somewhat skeptical about the official line.

"For instance," the authors continue, "almost half of participants endorsed to some degree the idea that 'Coronavirus is a bioweapon developed by China to destroy the West' and around one-fifth endorsed to some degree that 'Jews have created the virus to collapse the economy for financial gain'."

The study was limited given that the sample was procured through non-probability sampling, and researchers could not be certain that a tendency towards conspiracy thinking did not influence subjects' decision to take part in the survey. Still, the sample was selected to represent the general population on a number of demographic characteristics.

The study, "Coronavirus conspiracy beliefs, mistrust, and compliance with government guidelines in England", was authored by Daniel Freeman, Felicity Waite, Laina Rosebrock, Ariane Petit, Chiara Causier, Anna East, Lucy Jenner, Ashley-Louise Teale, Lydia Carr, Sophie Mulhall, Emily Bold, and Sinéad Lambe.