In 1964, in a seminal paper, Richard Hofstadter defined belief in conspiracy theories (herein also CTs) as “a style of mind”, a “paranoid style”. In essence, his view was that this style of mind was “a persistent psychic phenomenon, more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population”. This pioneering analysis has led to a double positive effect of making science interested in the subject and studying it from a psychological perspective (not only political and/or historical).
However, as argued by Brotherton (2015), this approach also influenced the subsequent debate by relegating those who believe in conspiracy theories and, more generally, misinformation to a small group of paranoids. Recent surveys (see, among others, Ibbetson, 2021) show on the contrary that believing in conspiracy theories and misinformation is widespread among the world population and covers the most disparate issues from vaccines to aliens, from politics to climate change.
On the other hand, the persistence in time of the phenomenon, confirmed by historical anecdotes (Brotherton, 2015) and some longitudinal studies (Uscinski & Parent, 2014), highlights that beliefs in false narratives are a structural phenomenon, typical of all popular cultures.
In this new vein, beliefs in false narratives have been correlated with individuals’ negative emotional states. In psychological literature (Freeman, 2007), several studies have already begun to assess the effect exerted by negative emotions exacerbating paranoid thinking, in both clinical and non-clinical populations (Freeman et al. 2011). The negative emotional states such as depressive ones increase the self-perception of vulnerability making people more distressed, especially under stressful conditions (e.g., on-going stress, major life events). The self-perception of being low-power individuals can lead to believe that one's life is controlled by external forces and other persons (Mirowsky & Ross, 1983) and to react in hostile and aggressive ways (Schaerer et al., 2021). This kind of functioning characterizes particularly paranoid delusion reflecting an insecurely constructed self (Trower and Chadwick,1995). This ‘poor me’ paranoia is associated not only with depressive feelings but also specific information-processing biases such as “jump to conclusions” in the face of probabilistic information and misunderstanding the intentions of others (Freeman & Garety, 2014). In accordance with this perspective, Abalakina-Paap et al. (1999), in a seminal paper, showed that “beliefs in conspiracies are related to feelings of alienation, powerlessness, hostility, and being disadvantaged. There was no support for the idea that people believe in conspiracies because they provide simplified explanations of complex events”. More recently, Swami et al. (2016) confirm that stress (but not anxiety) may be antecedents of beliefs in conspiracy theories. Moreover, other studies show that a stronger belief in conspiracy theories is significantly associated with lower analytic thinking and greater intuitive thinking (Swami et al., 2014).
Coming to the present day, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has constituted a major threat to physical and mental health (Smith et al., 2021; O’Connor et al., 2021). It has exacerbated depressive symptoms (see among others Rajkumar, 2020) and has questioned one's own personal control over life outcomes. In addition, the pandemic has exacerbated the effect of situations of physical isolation (partly because of the adopted distancing and lockdown restrictions taken by governments to contrast the pandemic) that are likely to alter the mental states (Delmastro & Zamariola, 2020) and beliefs of citizens. These emotional, cognitive and social elements can facilitate the spread of conspiracy beliefs and more generally misinformation narratives during persistent stressful COVID-19 conditions (De Coninck et al., 2021; Khun et a. 2021).
While many fake news may be harmless and may even be entertaining, the ones related to medical and public health topics can be particularly dangerous for the individual and collective well-being. This latter category “includes misinformation and conspiracy theories related to COVID‐19, which is likely one of the most significant pandemics of our lifetime” (Stein et al., 2021).
The relationship between mental states and beliefs in false narratives may be mediated by misperceptions about COVID-19 (Pennycook et al., 2020). Indeed, states of depression and sense of vulnerability can lead citizens not to fully perceive a new and complex phenomenon whose knowledge has changed drastically and quickly over time. Misinformation thus finds a fertile environment where COVID-19 is not properly understood by many citizens within a cognitive framework based on trusted scientific findings.
In this context, much depends on how citizens acquire information on COVID-19 (De Coninck et al., 2021). Previous findings show that conspiracy thinking may be associated with avoidance of mainstream news media and with a tendency to acquire news and information mainly through alternative news sources, such as those shared via social media (Cinelli et al., 2020). In addition, algorithms in social media platforms can lead to echo chambers and confirmation bias among users, which is the main issue in believing in misinformation and fake news (Brugnoli et al., 2019, Cinelli et al., 2021). On the other hand, scientific and institutional sources have become established among part of the population at this stage and many citizens have started to consult directly to acquire accredited and validated news and information on the epidemic and its development
Given the complexity of the subject, the article aims to test some of the previous research hypotheses using a multidisciplinary approach (Delmastro, 2021, van Bavel et al., 2020).
First, it is important to check whether the worsening of the depressive symptoms due to the pandemic is also correlated with greater gullibility of individuals towards misinformation narratives. In this regard, it is crucial not only to assess the existence of a link between the two phenomena, but also to assess its eventual dimension.
This relationship, whatever it is, clearly coevolves with other factors that must be considered in the analysis. Indeed, the direct (i.e., personal), indirect (i.e., in the family), and contextual (i.e., in the geographic area where individuals live) health effects of COVID-19 on individuals should be considered. As for any social phenomenon, beliefs may depend, even in a completely unexpected way (see the case of vaccines), on the distance from the phenomenon. It is therefore important to verify the co-evolution of beliefs with the spread of the pandemic according to the “distance” of the latter from the individual.
In this context, it is useful to check whether more analytical thinking can help to disengage false beliefs, which as mentioned in the case of health phenomena can have very undesirable effects on public health and social welfare. This is especially true in the case of a pandemic in which the coevolution of the spread of COVID-19 with mental illness, may trigger a syndemic process (Horton, 2020, Singer et al. 2017). To do so, educational attainment may be used as a proxy for individuals' analytical tools. This has two undoubted benefits (and of course some drawbacks, for a discussion see Deary & Johnson, 2010). First, educational attainment offers an objective element that, although it varies across geographic contexts (but this issue is less prominent in the case of an analysis conducted in a single nation), is less volatile than ad-hoc tests. In addition, the educational system, including permanent education, is a “variable” on which governments can and should operate.
The relationship between the depressive states, analytical tools and beliefs can be mediated by the (mis)perception of phenomena. It is therefore interesting to verify to what extent beliefs in misinformation and conspiracy theories (about COVID-19) are associated with a misperception of the phenomenon and/or by a more adherent (or on the contrary skeptical) attitude towards them.
To do so, we conducted a study on a random and representative sample of the Italian population (aged 16+) right after the first lockdown phase (i.e., in June 2020), to collect the immediate reactions of citizens to the emergency. Indeed, we carried out the survey as soon as the lockdown phase was just over (i.e., so-called “Phase 1”), with the re-opening of manufacturing industries and construction sites and the restart of movements across Italian regions (from 3rd of June). This timeframe appears ideal to conduct a field analysis because the whole lockdown phase had just ended, the citizens' memory of the period just passed was still intact and the organization of such a complex survey was feasible.