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10 February 2021

Can Covid-19 conspiracy theorists be reformed?

Since conspiracy theorists already feel alienated, responding with hostility or ridicule may only backfire. 

By Sophie McBain

Last month, a critical care consultant in Leeds told me that one of his colleagues had recently been called a murderer by a man whose father had died of Covid-19. Convinced that the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax, the son could only conclude that the ventilator, not Covid-19, had killed his father.

It was not the first time the consultant’s team had been accused of murder by Covid deniers. A recent Guardian article by the palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke suggests that this problem is relatively widespread. She described people attempting to remove critically ill patients from Covid wards, and said she’d been called Hitler and Satan on Twitter for refuting claims that British hospitals are empty.

What would cause a person to insist that coronavirus doesn’t exist in the face of such overwhelming, sometimes personal, evidence to the contrary?

“Paradoxically, for some people, accusing someone of murder can be easier to handle than ‘a virus killed my father’ because if an evil person is doing this you can imagine that things might have been different, and the world might not be as frightening,” Stephan Lewandowsky, chair of cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol, told me. “Escaping into a conspiracy theory is a way to cope with a sense of a loss of control… it protects people against this terrifying feeling that they don’t have any control of their lives.”

Research suggests that certain types of people are more inclined to resort to conspiracies as a defence against fear and uncertainty. This includes those who feel marginalised, and people who favour intuitive thinking – listening to their gut – over rationality. But Lewandowsky underlined that anyone can be susceptible to conspiracist thinking. One study found that asking people to describe an event in their lives when they had lost control primed them to think more conspiratorially: they were subsequently more likely to see patterns in random arrangements of dots or to suspect a conspiracy when told about ambiguous social scenarios.

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For Jan-Willem van Prooijen, associate professor of social and organisational psychology at Vrije university in Amsterdam, the persistence of Covid denialism even after a loved one dies of the virus has some parallels with the behaviour of people in doomsday cults. When the world doesn’t end as predicted, cult members do not abandon their beliefs but rather assume they have successfully averted the apocalypse. Evidence that seems to outsiders to pose an existential threat to a cult’s world view barely registers as incongruous.

[See also: Richard J Evans on why pandemics create conspiracy theories

Conspiratorial beliefs are resilient in part because they are often the product of motivated reasoning or confirmation bias, the tendency to reject new information that does not support a person’s pre-existing beliefs. This ideological cherry-picking is easier in the internet era, van Prooijen observed, when you can find “evidence for anything”. “If you want to believe the earth is flat, just Google ‘flat earth’ and you’ll find lots of ‘evidence’, so to speak,” he told me. Some studies have suggested that false information spreads faster and further online than true information. Other research has shown that people who believe in conspiracy theories frequently hold mutually incompatible beliefs, so that if you believe Princess Diana was murdered, you are more likely to also believe that she faked her own death and is still alive.

Van Prooijen believes several socio-political factors are contributing to a resurgence of conspiracy theories, with their narratives of hostile, all-powerful outsiders. These include the deep-rooted mistrust of political elites and experts that drives – and is driven by – populist politics; the intense political polarisation that sharpens “us versus them” divides; and what he calls “collective narcissism”, the view that one’s own country is superior to others.

As a folklorist, Jon D Lee, the author of An Epidemic of Rumors: How Stories Shape our Perception of Disease, is struck by how the same narratives resurface with every new epidemic, from HIV/Aids to swine flu or the 2002-04 Sars outbreak. Each time a new disease emerges, science cannot keep apace with people’s desire for answers, and so they resort to familiar stories. This is why same conspiracies keep returning about viruses escaping from labs, or CIA plots, or miraculous cures often involving bleach. Once these conspiracies take root, they can be hard to challenge because belief in them begins to form a part of a person’s identity. Trying to convert a conspiracy theorist through logic is like “going up to a vegan and saying, ‘Just eat meat’”, Lee told me.

What, then, can a person do if someone they love refuses to believe in Covid? Karen Douglas, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent, warned that conspiracy theorists already feel alienated, so responding with hostility or ridicule will backfire. You are also unlikely to convince a conspiracy theorist by presenting them with new evidence. Douglas suggested that one promising approach is to appeal to the value they place on critical thinking and encourage them to think critically about where they are getting their information from, demonstrating respect for their intellect rather than dismissing it.

Of course, some people simply cannot be swayed. For the most committed conspiracy theorist the most effective intervention resembles the intensive, therapeutic work associated with deradicalisation programmes for political extremists, Lewandowsky told me. After all, he said, “there’s no radical extremist who isn’t also a believer in a conspiracy theory”.

[See also: Sarah Manavis: Boris Johnson needs to stop making it easy for Covid conspiracies to spread]