The saddest thing about a conspiracy mindset is the part where imagining people are out to get you implies your life matters to someone else.
As we’ve covered before, studies have shown that both people who have certain outlooks on the world are more prone to fall victim to conspiracy mentalities, and those who believe in one conspiracy theory often believe in several.
But in a paper published June 25th, 2020, entitled “Looking out for myself: Exploring the relationship between conspiracy mentality, perceived personal risk, and COVID‐19 prevention measures” the authors delve into how this maladjusted take on the world affects our current pandemic. What they uncovered was a tragic chunk of irony: the conspiracy mindset actually increases the likelihood of a person to undertake preventative measures which are good for the public health, but only in the absence of public health officials or any other authority figures telling people to do so.
When that happens the conspiracy thinking flips the person on their head with the grace of an Olympic diver aiming at the pavement instead of the pool.
Study co-author Gaelle Marinthe of the University of Rennes 2 and University Sorbonne-Nouvelle: “From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw conspiracy theories emerge about the virus, such as the fact that it was created in a Chinese laboratory, or on the contrary by American institutions. We could also see that many people were reluctant to follow preventive behaviors, precisely because it was seen as serving the interests of certain industrial or political groups. In order to fight this pandemic, the involvement of everyone in complying with prevention measures is essential.”
Takeaway: The Morality of Manipulation
Here’s where conscientious, reasonable people in positions of authority are faced with a moral dilemma: do we factor the pathological conspiracy mindset into public health communications plans in order in the hopes of saving more innocent people from being exposed—in this case to a viral pandemic—by the recalcitrant fringe?
Do we, in one sense, literally conspire against these people on the fringes of sense and society to paternalistically nudge their behavior into alignment with the public interest in cases where such thinking poses an exigent and existential risk?
Or, do we just burn off the fringes so rest of the social carpet doesn’t come unraveled?
Of course, the real answer doesn’t lie between either of those two options but wholly outside them: we need to address the underlying reasons why people gravitate towards a conspiracy mindset in the first place—especially those who do because having someone out to get you means someone has noticed you exist.
Marinthe, G., Brown, G., Delouvée, S., & Jolley, D. (2020). Looking out for myself: Exploring the relationship between conspiracy mentality, perceived personal risk, and COVID‐19 prevention measures. British Journal Of Health Psychology. doi: 10.1111/bjhp.12449