By Danny Osborne

“By situating the cause of these events in the hands of a few nefarious actors, conspiracy theorists are able to take the unpredictability out of life and regain a sense of control.”

From bushfires to a pandemic that led to nation-wide lockdowns and a global recession, it is difficult to identify another time in history when the stars aligned to create such widespread and global chaos. Yet news of the COVID-19 vaccine has fostered a sense of hope. With (at least) three highly effective—and safe—vaccines for a dangerous and extremely infectious virus, we may soon reunite with overseas whanau (Māori for family) or perhaps again take part in much-loved overseas experiences. 

Although the COVID-19 vaccines offer hope to the global community, recent data from the Pew Research Centre in the United States reveals that 39% of Americans would NOT get the vaccine if it were available today. Another survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that a full 15% of Americans would “definitely” avoid the coronavirus vaccine. Though it is tempting to view these trends as an American problem, given how poorly the Trump administration has handled the pandemic, data from New Zealand reveal a similar hesitancy in vaccine uptake—only 74% of New Zealanders surveyed in September by researchers at Massey University said they intended to receive the COVID-19 vaccine once it becomes available. And an Ipsos survey of adults from 15 countries found a slight decline in intentions to get vaccinated, with only 52% of those sampled indicating that they would be willing to become vaccinated within three months of the vaccine’s approval. Many people across the globe prefer to wait before vaccinating themselves against this virus.

What explains people’s reluctance to receive a vaccine that promises a return to normalcy? Some of the hesitancy is simply people “waiting to see” if the vaccine is safe. But another sizeable proportion of those unwilling to be vaccinated do so based on conspiratorial thinking—a belief that momentous events originate from secret plots by powerful groups with ill intentions. Conspiracy thinking has flooded into the mainstream over the last few years, partly due to a certain commander-in-chief who has given these unfounded beliefs a bullhorn through his tweets and re-tweets. But to pin the rising popularity of conspiracy thinking on the Trump administration gives Donald Trump and his collaborators too much credit and ignores basic principles of social psychology. First, people have a tendency to believe that large events are caused by similarly large forces, believing that it is just not possible that a tiny virus could so drastically upend our lives by simply jumping the species barrier. Our minds have been shaped by evolutionary forces to find an equivalently-sized cause that created such chaos. And so enter shady figures lurking in the shadows who have plotted for years, nay decades, to create a situation that requires a global vaccination schedule that “microchips” the global citizenry, or that the coronavirus was created in a lab to undermine the US presidential election. Never mind that such a plot would require the entire global community to conspire with the Democrats to enforce lockdowns of untold economic consequence all to remove a president who, by and large, doesn’t actually want the job (if the days since his electoral loss are any indication of his desire to work). In some ways, the more unbelievable the story, the better the conspiracy.

Why do people endorse conspiracies? According to a few studies now, conspiracy beliefs are a way for people to gain a sense of control over their lives. Indeed, many—if not most—conspiracies originate in contexts where people’s sense of control has been shaken to the core, such as the assassination of JFK, 9/11 and the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to being momentous, these major events have a way of reminding people that they may not be able to control their lives as much as they might hope. By situating the cause of these events in the hands of a few nefarious actors, conspiracy theorists are able to take the unpredictability out of life and regain a sense of control. 

In addition, conspiracy theories seemingly work in accordance with standard social influence techniques. Research in social psychology has long-shown that people who “buy in” to small commitments wind up agreeing to much larger ones—a phenomenon aptly titled the “foot-in-the-door technique”. In one of the better-known early studies, researchers approached home owners and asked them if they could place a large billboard in the home owners’ lawns. Those who had previously agreed to a prior request approximately two weeks earlier (e.g., placing a small sign in the yard) were much more likely to agree to the outlandish request than those who had never been approached.

A similar process happens with conspiracy beliefs. Unsuspecting Facebook users (or YouTube viewers, etc.) may click on a link with a believable headline about inconsequential irregularities in the US election. Once the first link is clicked, more and more outlandish ads appear on their feed. Most see through these tricks and won’t fall prey to the ploy. But if the information fits one’s prior beliefs (e.g., Republicans who see a headline about electoral fraud undermining their candidate’s election, or Democrats who see a headline that pharmaceutical companies spread disease to make a profit) AND he/she has strong need for control, the person can fall down the rabbit hole of conspiracies. Indeed, research suggests that those who believe in one conspiracy often believe in others.

What can we do about it, then? Given that control plays such an important role in the endorsement of conspiracies, one way we can reduce the likelihood that people will believe in conspiracy theories is to increase their sense of control. In one illustrative study, researchers had participants either recall a time when they had (a) complete control or (b) no control over a situation (a control condition had participants recall their dinner the previous night). Participants then answered a set of questions about their conspiracy beliefs. Results showed that those who recalled a time where they had complete control over a situation had significantly lower conspiracy beliefs than did those who recalled a time when they had no control over a situation. In short, re-asserting control in our lives, or reminding ourselves of a time when we had control, decreases our susceptibility to conspiracy beliefs. 

As 2021 begins, the global community has an opportunity to reclaim some control with the coronavirus vaccine. Let’s hope that most of us seize this opportunity to inoculate ourselves – against the virus, and the conspiratorial thinking that so often coincides with feelings of uncontrollability. 


Danny Osborne is an Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in political psychology and intergroup relations.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the author’s opinion and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

See Also:

Should we be worried about COVID-19 conspiracy theories?

Q+A: Believing the ‘unbelievable’: What are conspiracy theories? How do they flourish?