The makings of a conspiracy theorist: Anxiety and loneliness

Author: Leigh van den Berg

Beep beep! Another WhatsApp notification from Aunt Barbs; this time, warning that Bill Gates is planning to use mass coronavirus vaccination to implant people with microchips that will track and spy on our every move.

 

Just last month, she cautioned about the scourge of 5G wireless technology and its role in exacerbating the spread of the disease (for the record, many experts label this theory as nonsensical, as well as physically and biologically impossible).

 

We all know an Aunt Barbs. Someone who may be well-intentioned but seems especially susceptible to misinformation and obsessive about continuing its dissemination. 

 

On the surface, you might assume they’re just naïve, but, as it turns out, they could be feeling anxious, unwanted or lonely– according to research. 

 

Anxious and lonely  

 

A study performed by the University of Kent School of Psychology researchers found that those with an anxious attachment style are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, such as the notion that Princess Diana was murdered by the British Secret Service. 

 

Moreover, new research from the University of Vienna’s Faculty of Psychology suggests that “fear, anxiety and low perceived control over a situation are positive predictors of conspiracy beliefs”.

 

To those experiencing anxiety, a conspiracy theory can provide comfort by “identifying a convenient scapegoat, thereby making the world seem more straightforward and controllable”, says Australian psychologist, Stephan Lewandowsky in an interview for Scientific American.

 

While the anxious may be drawn to conspiracy theories as a way of seeking control in a situation that causes them uncertainty, Daniel Jolley, a psychologist at Staffordshire University and Karen Douglas of the University of Kent, warn that this behaviour is counterproductive and can add to the anxiety already felt.

 

Conspiracy theories are “appealing but not necessarily satisfying. They can incite behaviour that increases a sense of powerlessness, making them [already anxious individuals] feel even worse… which can snowball into a vicious cycle of negative behaviour”, the pair add in Scientific American.

 

Anxiety aside, evidence also shows that conspiracy propagators are more likely to feel alienated or disaffection from society. Societal alienation appears to be connected to a higher belief and endorsement of such theories, adds Psych Central’s psychologist and mental health specialist, Dr John Grohol.

 

A vicious cycle 

 

When you consider that a pandemic, such as that of COVID-19, inadvertently increases our anxiety levels, and how those possibly confined indoors may be feeling isolated, it’s easy to see how such a crisis can create the perfect environment for a surge in conspiratorial thinking.

 

Kendra Cherry, psychosocial rehabilitation specialist and psychology author agrees, adding in VeryWell-Mind that conspiracy theories are people’s way of connecting the dots in times of “confusion, danger, and chaos”. 

 

The danger, however, arises when these beliefs lead to the promotion of dangerous behaviours, such as attacks on others or dissemination of medical misinformation. 

 

Sorting fact from fiction

 

If it contains contradictions in its evidence, is based on shaky assumptions and sounds far-fetched, chances are it’s a fake theory; according to Lewandowsky.

 

And while media, such as Google and social media platform Twitter have begun to intensify their fight against the spread of online disinformation, the responsibility for sorting fact from fiction ultimately lies with us. As Arizona State University (ASU) research scientist and disinformation expert Scott Ruston suggests in his ASU KEDtalk, people need to take responsibility for what they consume and spread and should always consider the origin of the information and its sources. 

 

As he succinctly puts it, “… disinformation is a human problem more than a technical problem and we all have a role to play – starting with reading broadly and critically”.  

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