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Research

'Fear messaging' unlikely to impact conspiracy theorists

17 May 2022

 

Public health messaging which relies on ‘fear messaging’ is unlikely to impact on people who tend to believe conspiracy theories, according to new research from a Teesside University academic.

Dr Lee Copping
Dr Lee Copping

Instead, people who engage with conspiracy theories become less likely to comply with public health measures and may actively break rules when confronted with campaigns which appeal to people’s fears and anxieties.

In a paper published in Personality and Individual Differences, the official journal of the International Society for the Study of Individual Differences, Dr Lee Copping, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities & Law, suggests that, in future, public health bodies may need to find alternative strategies to ensure compliance among those people who hold conspiratorial views.

His research was carried out between January and May 2021 and involved questioning almost 200 people about their compliance with lockdown rules throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as well as their beliefs in a variety of COVID-19 conspiracy myths. They were also questioned about their levels of anxiety about the virus.

Dr Copping’s findings show that those people who exhibited the most anxiety about the pandemic were more likely to comply with lockdown rules and restrictions.

This represents a non-trivial segment of the population and therefore future public health policy needs to be mindful of new strategies to ensure compliance among those people who endorse conspiracy myths.

Dr Lee Copping

However, this relationship declines and then reverses among people who tended to increasingly endorse conspiracy myths. Compliance begins to wane as conspiracy beliefs increase and those who are more anxious become less compliant.

Dr Copping said: “Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the public health messaging appealed to people’s anxieties and fears to ensure compliance with lockdown rules.

“While fear appeals are generally effective, what this research shows is that this does not work so well for those who endorse conspiracy theories.

“Instead, the more anxious they become about infection, the more they blame the system and react against it, paradoxically increasing their infection likelihood.

“Thankfully, the proportion of people who endorsed these beliefs in our sample was relatively small – just over four per cent.

“Nevertheless, scaled up to a national level, this represents a non-trivial segment of the population and therefore future public health policy needs to be mindful of new strategies to ensure compliance among those people who endorse conspiracy myths.”