How relevant is a study on conspiracy theories during a pandemic?

“Conspiracy theories have been around for hundreds of years, but in this age, what with social media becoming increasingly important, conspiracy theories are increasingly impactful. ‘Understanding’ something is to create a coherent view, and the way I see it, conspiracy theories are an extreme form of a coherent view. In books and TV shows, things always happen for a reason. Authors and directors show you things that may prove to be meaningful later. But reality doesn’t have an author, so things may happen that have nothing to do with each other and are pure coincidence. ‘True, true and unrelated,’ doctors say in such cases. But how to explain coincidence? It’s easy to believe that two things are related to each other, such as, for instance, the well-known theory that 5G is being used to spread the coronavirus. We have a tendency to wish to see intention in everything. If someone cuts you off on the motorway, chances are you’ll initially believe that the other person did it on purpose, but in actual fact, that person probably wasn’t paying attention. If you ascribe intent to everything, you’re more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.”

What exactly does your study entail?

“We look at the sources of information people use and their cognitive motivation 1. We then investigate the extent to which this affects the knowledge people acquire on COVID-19.

“I’ve been working on a book on ‘understanding’ for quite a while now. When the coronavirus outbreak began, I realised that this was a major ‘we-don’t-understand’ moment. While I was writing the book, I wondered: how do people acquire information on things such as the coronavirus? After all, there are all sorts of sources of information out there. On the one hand, you have your traditional media, such as de Volkskrant and NRC, but on the other hand, you have Facebook and Twitter, where people say all sorts of things. What kinds of sources do people use, and what does that tell us about the quality of the knowledge they collect on what the coronavirus is, what it does, and how best to protect yourself from it? And the other question I asked myself was: do certain types of cognitive motivation result in greater knowledge of the coronavirus than other types?”

Cognitive motivation? Please explain.

“Psychologists recognise several types of cognitive motivation. For instance, there’s the need for cognition, the degree to which you find it interesting to reflect on things. We expect people with a great need for cognition to try and learn a lot about the coronavirus and end up learning more about the virus, depending on the quality of the sources they use. People who don’t have a great need for cognition are likely to collect less knowledge. Another measure of cognitive motivation is the need for closure. This does not so much relate to the degree to which you enjoy reflecting on things as to the degree you love your view of reality to be coherent. As far as that is concerned, I felt that people with a great need for closure – in other words, people who like things to be coherent – are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. After all, these theories offer a coherence that official explanations lack.”

What kinds of challenges does one encounter when conducting a study during a pandemic?

“We’re all living in a situation where we have no idea what’s going to happen. Since researchers always seek to make sense of reality, this pandemic is complicating matters, because it’s making reality even harder to understand than it usually is. The theme of my study is one I, too, am struggling with. Whose information can be trusted, and whose information can’t? Who is an actual expert, and who isn’t? In addition, we’ve been forced to conduct our study online. We’re surveying people online, and we actually like that a lot. And we’re not having any difficulty collaborating. We’re still very able to have good meetings and study-related discussions.”

Mathijs van Dijk – Levien Willemse

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Do you have any recommendations for people who, like yourself, find it hard to make sense of the enormous amount of information on the coronavirus out there?

“My first recommendation would be to trust scientists over non-scientists. And with scientists, check whether they have any expertise in that particular field. I, too, can say things about infections. I’m a scientist, but I’m not an expert on that subject. Also, be aware that different scientists may hold different opinions, because there are things about which we simply don’t have enough information yet. If we find that a particular hypothesis is not supported by data, we must revise our views. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. That’s how science works, actually.

“In addition, it’s useful to analyse what kind of picture certain people are painting, and what stake they have in the matter. With any information you come across, check the source. If you’re reading something on the Internet, check which website published it. Does it come from a well-reputed newspaper, for example?

  1. Cognitive motivation relates to the degree to which people enjoy engaging in mental processes such as interpretation and reasoning, and the degree to which they need a coherent view of reality. ↩︎