“The COVID-19 pandemic is just an invention of political elites to restrict basic rights and enslave people. Masks don’t help, no, they even make you sick. And vaccination kills.”
Claims like these have mushroomed during the pandemic – and have found grateful takers. Since then, psychologists have been dealing with the question: Who are the people who believe that?
One of them is Jan Philipp Rudloff. The psychologist is a research associate at the Chair of Communication Psychology and New Media at the University of Würzburg.
Fake news and conspiracy theories are among his research interests. “It’s hard to draw the classic conspiracy believer,” says Rudloff. Still, there’s something that binds conspiracy and fake news buffs together—at least that’s the finding of two publications Rudloff helped create. “It’s a certain understanding of what knowledge is and what facts are.”
The researchers found that certain so-called epistemic beliefs can explain belief in conspiracy narratives.
Epistemic beliefs are a person’s individual beliefs about knowledge and knowledge acquisition. Some people trust their intuition in particular (which is not necessarily a problem at first), but have little interest in backing up their gut feeling with solid evidence.
They find that opinions are fundamentally equal, regardless of the scientific evidence, which may support one thesis much more than the other.
In their first study, Rudloff and his colleagues wanted to know what epistemic beliefs people have who believe in corona conspiracy stories and interviewed more than 2,000 test persons from Germany and the USA.
“Those who place great value on their intuition, little value on hard evidence, and believe that what is considered truth is dictated by those in power are particularly vulnerable to fake news and conspiracy theories,” summarizes Rudloff the results of the investigations together.
The researchers also examined another theory: Do people with pronounced “dark personality traits” tend to have the epistemic beliefs described by Rudloff and thus also to believe conspiracy stories and fake news?
The dark triad
“Narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism are three particularly well-known examples of dark personality traits,” explains Rudloff. They are also called the “dark triad”. These are characteristics that every human being carries within himself to a certain extent.
While people with strong narcissistic traits like to be the center of attention, those with strong Machiavellianism are particularly concerned about status and power. Psychopathy, on the other hand, is characterized by risk-taking and impulsive behavior.
As different as the characteristics of the three players of the dark triad are, they have a common core: “They lead to behavior that aims to maximize one’s own advantage,” says Rudloff.
“We asked ourselves whether this behavior also resulted in a certain way of dealing with information,” says the psychologist. Does it even matter what is true and what isn’t when self-interest is the number one priority? The researchers used a test to inquire about the proportions of dark personality traits in their subjects.
“The higher the personality’s dark factor, the more likely you are to believe in conspiracy stories,” says Rudloff about the results of the investigation. The scientist was not surprised by this finding, it was rather obvious.
These people tend to be averse to prosocial behavior, which is not primarily about their own benefit and advantage. Keeping your distance, wearing a mask or staying at home is not necessary if you have the appropriate epistemic convictions: if your gut feeling thinks the virus is harmless and the pandemic is only a political instrument of power anyway, measures to contain the pandemic are also obsolete.
Basis for conspiracy theories
Epistemic beliefs like these may also explain why the content of the conspiracy narratives is interchangeable: whether Corona, war in Ukraine or climate crisis – there is plenty of material.
Epistemic beliefs are developed in childhood, says Rudloff. He therefore believes that it is important to teach epistemic beliefs as an important topic as early as school.
In this way, the difference between opinion and facts can be conveyed in school lessons in child-friendly language. Jan Philipp Rudloff cites the climate crisis as an example: 97 percent of climate researchers say the crisis is man-made. They have accumulated evidence to support this thesis.
“You can’t really say more than that, but I have a different opinion,” says Rudloff. Some people just don’t want to take that step. For them, every opinion is worth the same. The good news at the end: “We’re talking about a minority,” says Rudloff. Most people care about evidence and the difference between opinion and fact.