What leads to believe in conspiracy theories? This question is crucial, especially if we are to address the concerns of those who are more skeptical of vaccination. People who refuse to receive the vaccine against COVID-19 have a discourse that shows a kind of distrust fueled, among other things, by the different conspiracy theories concerning the pandemic.
The COHESION study, which looks at the impacts of the pandemic on mental health, is interested in understanding the relationship between conspiracy beliefs and psychological health and wellbeing. Questionnaires were designed to measure to what extent people had a conspiracy mentality in January 2021, and compared the data with different mental health outcomes three months later, in April 2021.
This blog post, the first of two, aims to describe the profile of people with strong conspiracy beliefs. This is a preliminary step to analyzing the link between conspiracy beliefs and well-being, which will be the subject of the second blog post on conspiracy theories.
What are conspiracy theories?
Conspiracy theories are false beliefs that attribute the cause of important or serious events to the often malicious intentions of powerful individuals or groups working together in secret.
There are therefore specific conspiracy beliefs, but we can also speak of a "conspiracy mentality," which is the general tendency to subscribe to this kind of belief, regardless of the subject.
Conspiracy beliefs are therefore linked to the level of distrust of governments, public agencies and private companies. We are all on the continuum of distrust in one way or another. It is healthy to question the decisions and actions of institutions that impact our lives. However, for some people, this level of doubt becomes the lense through which they see the world, potentially undermining social cohesion and causing distress. It is therefore appropriate to analyze this worldview without passing judgment.
Among our sample of 334 respondents, conspiracy beliefs are most strongly associated with education, household income, and pre-pandemic employment status. In total, 13 % have a high level of conspiracy beliefs. There is little difference in the proportion of people with strong conspiracy beliefs between men (14%) and women (12%), nor between different age categories.
In terms of education level, there is a marked difference between those with a university degree and those without. While 6% of those with a university degree display a conspiracy mindset, this proportion rises to 26% and 22% respectively among college or technical school graduates and those with only elementary or secondary education. This difference could be explained by different information consumption habits (e.g., traditional media versus social networks), which in turn could influence the levels of conspiracy beliefs.
A similar distribution is observed for the different income strata: among those with household incomes of more than $100,000, 5% display a conspiracy mentality (compared to 20% among those earning less than $30,000). Perhaps lower household income could harbor greater distrust of public institutions and governments, as their reality does not always reflect the policy commitments of large institutions to reduce social inequality. Very early in the pandemic, studies had already noted that social inequalities increased the risk of being infected by the virus and of developing a severe form of the disease. It would not be surprising if the most precarious populations felt neglected by the institutions, fueling a certain distrust.
Finally, 28% of people who were unemployed at the beginning of the pandemic expressed conspiracy ideas. This proportion drops to 15% among retired people and 6% among those who were already employed at the beginning of the pandemic. The precariousness associated with not having a job during a time of uncertainty could thus influence the level of conspiracy beliefs.
Other variables, more related to attitudes and beliefs, reveal some interesting trends. Not surprisingly, in January 2021, vaccine intention was strongly associated with conspiracy mindset. In fact, 47% of those who did not intend to - or did not know if they would get the vaccine displayed high levels of conspiracy beliefs, compared to only 6% of those who wanted to receive it. Indeed, these results are consistent with those obtained in other studies. Although our questionnaire did not specifically probe vaccination-related conspiracies, the large difference observed suggests that conspiracy beliefs are part of a larger belief system, characterized by distrust of groups considered powerful or elitist, such as health authorities.
Another interesting finding concerns political positioning on the left-right axis. The further people are positioned to the right of the political spectrum, the more they report a conspiracy mindset (i.e., 41% of those positioned on the right tend to hold a conspiracy worldview, compared to 12% of those in the center, and 8% on the left). In fact, researchers who have observed similar proportions explain that the political ideology of the sources consulted to learn about COVID-19 could influence the level of adherence to conspiracy theories. Even before the pandemic, other researchers have argued that the ideological flavour of a theory determines its tendency to be embraced depending on whether one considers oneself to be right or left wing, but that theories that deny the results of science tend to reinforce more conservative discourses, especially in the US.
Interestingly, we notice that in rural areas, small towns and medium-sized towns, 15%, 18% and 24% respectively of participants display a conspiracy, compared to 11% in large cities. This difference could be related to the uneven distribution of right-wing and left-wing supporters within rural and urban areas. Indeed, in our sample, we find twice as many right-wing supporters in rural areas (21%) than in large metropolitan areas (10%).
Throughout this blog post, we have described the profile of individuals with strong conspiracy beliefs in our cohort. Overall, household income, education level, employment status, vaccine hesitancy, political ideas, and living in a rural area appear to be individually associated with conspiracy beliefs. However, some of these factors are also known to have an impact on psychological well-being. In the following blog post, we will further discuss the relationship between conspiracy beliefs and well-being, as well-being is the primary focus of the COHESION study. Stay tuned for more!
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