Jan-Willem van Prooijen currently works as Associate Professor of Social Psychology at VU Amsterdam, Senior Researcher at the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement (NSCR), and Endowed Professor of Radicalization, Extremism, and Conspiracy Thinking at Maastricht University. His main research interests are conspiracy theories, populism, extremism, and unethical behavior.
Belief in conspiracy theories during a pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic has inspired many conspiracy theories, such as that the Sars-Cov-2 virus was developed by humans in the lab, that Covid-19 is caused by the radiation of 5G telecommunication networks, that governments have planned the pandemic to restrict people’s freedom, and so on. The current presentation will address two questions. First, are Covid-19 conspiracy theories harmful or harmless? And second, why did the pandemic offer such fertile soil for conspiracy theories? As to the first question, results of various longitudinal studies indicate that conspiracy beliefs are not only correlated with a decrease in constructive health beliefs and behaviors (e.g., social distancing), but also predict a progressive decrease in constructive health beliefs and behaviors over time. Also, people use conspiracy theories to justify their anti-vaccination sentiments. As to the second question, the distress that many citizens experience during societal crisis situations shapes basic cognitive operations, hostile social perceptions, and extreme ideological beliefs, which all feed into conspiracy thinking. Apparently, conspiracy beliefs are a natural human response to societal crisis situations such as a pandemic, and such beliefs undermine public health.