Conspiracy beliefs moderate the link between political partisanship and endorsement of COVID-19 prevention measures

New research from Brazil helps to untangle the relationships between conspiracy beliefs, political partisanship, and support for COVID-19 prevention measures. The study provides more evidence that polarization endangers the effectiveness of public strategies to cope with the pandemic.

“My main focus of research consists of antinormative behavior — more specifically, dishonesty and corruption,” said study author Jessica Farias, a PhD student in at the University of Brasilia.

“My interest in the topic of this research stems from a desire to identify some factors that lead a great number of individuals to defy social distancing measures — which also is an antinormative behavior. Considering the huge amount of information that circulates about the pandemic, I decided to investigate whether belief in conspiracy theories — apart from misinforming people — would actually influence compliance with prevention measures,” Farias explained.

“I was also interested in investigating whether scientific research would support the perception that adhesion to COVID-19 prevention measures was indeed related to political ideology. And, considering that the pandemic is a period of great uncertainty, I decided to assess the role of intolerance of uncertainty in non-compliance as well.”

The researchers surveyed 662 individuals regarding their compliance with measures to combat COVID-19, intolerance of uncertainty, conspiracy beliefs, and political partisanship.

Farias and her colleagues were particularly interested in three different categories of conspiracies: conspiracy beliefs about government malfeasance, such as “The government permits or perpetrates acts of terrorism on its own soil, disguising its involvement”; conspiracy beliefs about personal wellbeing, such as “Experiments involving new drugs or technologies are routinely carried out on the public without their knowledge or consent”; and conspiracy beliefs related to the control of information, such as “Groups of scientists manipulate, fabricate, or suppress evidence in order to deceive the public.”

The researchers found that right-wing partisans tended to show less support for COVID-19 prevention measures, including the closure of commercial venues and the issuance of fines to those who violate social distancing rules. Right-wing partisans also reported leaving their homes more often during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Conspiracy beliefs moderated the effect of political partisanship on endorsement of COVID-19 prevention measures, but endorsement of the conspiracy beliefs appeared to push right- and left-wing partisans in opposite directions.

“That is, the stronger these beliefs are among far and moderate left-wing partisans, the stronger the support for preventive measures while the opposite holds true for center and right-wing partisans. It means that conspiracy theories have a more detrimental effect on center and right-wing partisans if compared to left-wing ones,” the researchers explained.

The findings show that “is essential to diminish politicization around the virus,” Farias told PsyPost. “People should take precautionary actions regardless of their political ideology. The pandemic is a matter of public health, and everyone should do their part in fighting the disease.”

“It is also important to seek information on COVID-19 from reliable sources — for example, the mainstream media, experts, and scientific papers — and not trust any information that you come across on social media.”

Heightened intolerance of uncertainty, in addition, was associated with greater endorsement of the conspiracy beliefs. The researchers found that individuals who had high levels of intolerance of uncertainty and held stronger beliefs in government malfeasance theories tended to violate social distancing more often. “If people are struggling with the uncertainty posed by the pandemic, it could be a good idea to look for psychological assistance,” Farias said.

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