The Facts Don’t Always Speak For Themselves
Most of us became animal advocates after we saw or heard something about animal welfare that disturbed us. It might have been a graphic video of factory farming or reading a book such as Animal Liberation. Whatever it was, we probably sought confirmatory information. This was likely an uncomfortable process, but once we learned something, it was hard to unlearn it, and faced with the cruel facts, we decided to act. But as we know, a lot of people don’t respond this way. Instead, they seek out information that confirms what they want to believe, and because modern media contains a treasure trove of misinformation, they tend to find it. In the process they may also connect with a like-minded community with which they can share conspiracy theories and alternative facts that confirm their thinking.
As this study shows, there are two psychological orientations that seem particularly vulnerable to misinformation and conspiracy theories. One of these, Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA), is defined by a belief in traditional values and submission to authority. The other, Social Dominance Orientation (SDO), endorses group-based hierarchies. Those who display SDO are extremely sensitive to the economic threat of outgroups and try to consign them far down in the social and economic order. Both orientations, which devalue the lives of fellow humans, also lead to less empathy towards animals. Both have also been linked to prejudice and speciesism.
This psychological vulnerability has been on full display during the SARS-COV-2 pandemic. While COVID-19 has spread around the globe, so have conspiracy theories about its origin. This study used two online surveys of 1,406 U.K. adults to gauge public understanding of where the pandemic came from. Researchers wanted to learn how cognitive reasoning ability, political-psychological motivations, information sources, and socio-demographic factors affect susceptibility to misinformation. Researchers asked subjects about three theories for the rise of COVID-19: that it started in a meat market in Wuhan, China; that it was created in a lab in Wuhan, China; or that it’s caused by 5G mobile networks. They also inquired about willingness to social distance and take a vaccine for COVID-19.
Results of the data analysis suggest that psychological motivations and political beliefs, along with the sources of COVID-19 information, are associated with conspiracy theories about the virus. More specifically, belief in the Chinese lab conspiracy is associated with RWA, SDO, and a preference for tabloid newspapers. Belief in the 5G network theory is linked to SDO and a preference for social media as a source for COVID-19 information. These psychological orientations have more impact than education or cognitive reasoning ability on which COVID-19 origin stories subjects believe.
The spread of conspiracy theories among certain groups has important policy implications. Those that subscribe to conspiracy theories are often less willing to follow public health guidelines. They reject rules about social distancing and mask-wearing. More concerning, they are unwilling to be vaccinated. These findings are worrisome. They suggest that conspiracy theories won’t be defeated by public education campaigns. People will believe what they want to believe, and politically motivated reasoning plays a large role in making them susceptible to misinformation. In the case of COVID-19, it is especially unfortunate that this process of belief building has been so prevalent, and has displaced the animal origin of the issue.
For animal advocates, this study offers a glimpse into how people filter information, and what psychological constructs affect this process: political motivation tends to trump cognitive processes. However, conspiracy theories are in some ways social phenomena. Thus, there may be ways to use the social aspects of information sharing to “inoculate” people against misinformation. Advocates can look for strategies that will do just that as they design their information campaigns, and help to ensure that the animal origins of present and future social issues can be highlighted rather than obscured.