Across our social media taglines in Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, Instagram, and Twitter, most of us during the present Covid-19 pandemic have come across often ridiculous conspiracy theories.
From claims of fake cures being hidden by big pharmaceutical companies to perceived illuminati making fake quotes and claims purportedly benefiting from the crisis then to the origins of Covid-19 itself, conspiracy theorists often bring these notions up to our attention.
But why do people believe so fervently in conspiracy theories and what can we do in response? Clark McCauley and Susan Jacques long posited that conspiracy involves attempts to explain the ultimate causes of events around us -secret plots by powerful forces instead of obvious reasons.
The belief in conspiracy notions appears driven by three factors; someone’s understanding of their environment, attempts to be safe and in control of their environment, and also trying to maintain a positive image of themselves and their social circle.
One would assume that the conspiracy theories would make believers exceedingly satisfied and pleased with their alternate universe. But, social scientists Karen Douglas, Robbie Sutton, and Aleksandra Cichocka find that for a large number of conspiracy theorists, rather than their beliefs bringing them satisfaction, their opinions are just more appealing to them over the truth instead of them gaining deep personal satisfaction.
Researchers Jan‐Willem van Prooijen and Nils Jostmann determined a key aspect in the uptake of conspiracy theories by conducting experiments. When people experience uncertainty, then their opinion about the morality of authority figures involved influences their likelihood to believe the fake explanations.
In the Covid-19 crisis, the world certainly does face widespread uncertainty. This uncertainty is partially fuming conspiracy theorists along with varying degrees of beliefs in the integrity of our leaders.
We can even look to two examples of powerful adversaries both provoking conspiracy theories against each other. The Chinese Community Party covers discontent by fuelling doubt about the origins of the latest coronavirus by suggesting it originates from American military laboratories. On the other hand, American President Donald Trump also hurls conspiracy theories that China manufactured this specific coronavirus.
Yet, an international consortium of scientists working to prevent future virus outbreaks found that Covid-19 matches a sample taken from a horseshoe bat in a cave in Yunnan, China, in 2013. Thus, it is proven that it has natural origins rather than laboratory-based.
Both the Chinese and American governments know this fact, but both still take advantage of the conspiracy biases of their populations so as to change the narrative and avoid blame on themselves.
Often conspiracy theorists get dismissed as just paranoid people. But social psychologist Daniel Jolley at Northumbria University finds that conspiracy beliefs do not originate in only paranoid individuals. All of us have occasional conspiracy thoughts. It is a normal natural feeling, especially when we feel anxious, uncertain, or threatened. It can help explain the world around us. Conspiracy theories can make us feel like we are back in control.
Conspiracy notions can give our enemies a bad name, like what the Chinese and American governments are doing right now.
But the key is whether we just hold occasionally normal passing thoughts or do we believe in full-blown theories and hold onto those conspiracies even in the face of overwhelming opposing evidence.
Throughout history, most big events actually have a conspiracy theory attached. John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the September 11th terrorist attacks, Barack Obama’s birthplace, climate change, and now Covid-19. In Kenya we have our own conspiracy theories including the late Prof George Saitoti’s fatal helicopter accident as well as road accidents theoretically being sacrifices by transport bosses to the demonic world rather than a driver who accidently fell asleep at the wheel. Conspiracy theories provide an answer to a problem because the human brain wants answers. But Dr Jolley points out that we usually do not realise the biases in our own minds. The world is a complicated place. Our brain is designed to make sense of things very quickly. One of these biases that usually gets minimal attention in modern discourse or media is portionality bias.
We feel that big events must also be explained by a big cause. A small cause does not fit with our desire for portionality.
We also hold a tendency to see things in patterns. It could be random colour schemes, patterns in the clouds or dreams, coin tosses, or stock market price fluctuations and irrational expectations for future stock growth even though the past bears no relationship to future stock growth.
People who are more likely to see patterns in the world around them are more likely to believe conspiracy theories.
What is the harm with believing intrigues, machinations, seditions, and schemes? Millions of people believe in conspiracies despite their everyday normal bias-induced reasons. So, potentially conspiracies can prove quite harmful. Examples include: those exposed to ideas that climate change is a hoax made them less likely to want to reduce their carbon footprint.
Also, exposing people to the idea that vaccines are harmful because the data was faked made them less likely to want to vaccinate their children. Such individuals could make the eventual eradication of Covid-19 much more difficult.
Scientific solutions to rampant conspiracy beliefs include promoting analytical thinking since that reduces belief in conspiracy theories. Additionally, bolstering feelings of control reduced beliefs in conspiracy theories. Potential education and empowerment can enhance feelings of control. United, banding together, we can combat dangerous conspiracy irrational beliefs, educate people about biases, and heighten analytical thinking and feelings of control.
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