Overconfidence in reasoning abilities and distrust of science linked to conspiracy beliefs about COVID-19

The fact that many people hold conspiracy theory beliefs has been brought to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic, which raises the question: what makes people vulnerable to misinformation? A study published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that trust in science is a protective factor against conspiracy beliefs, while overconfidence in one’s own reasoning abilities is a risk factor.

Before the pandemic, many people thought conspiracy theories were outlandish and didn’t believe them at all. COVID-19, like many other crises, has ushered in an era of uncertainty and brought conspiracy theories to the forefront of society, revealing them to be more widespread than previously thought. Belief in conspiracies is related to many different individual and social factors, such as age, socioeconomic status, conservatism, and more. This study seeks to better understand these factors in relation to beliefs about COVID-19 and to delve into stable and fluid characteristics that may have an impact.

For their study, Andrea Vranic and her colleagues used 755 participants recruited online. Participants ranged in age from 16 to 69 years. The data was collected in June 2020, after the initial lockdown for COVID-19, when numbers were relatively low and it was uncertain whether another wave would occur. Participants completed measures of demographic information, conservatism, trust in science/scientists, overconfidence in their own reasoning skills, and endorsement of conspiracy theories related to COVID-19.

The researchers in this study considered demographics to be stable traits, overconfidence and conservatism less stable, and trust in science as a worldview that changes easily. The results showed that the number one predictor of conspiracy beliefs about COVID-19 was trust in science and scientists. The variance explained by this easy-to-change factor was 38%, which was the largest result by far.

Education was not associated with differences in conspiracy beliefs about COVID-19. Overconfidence in one’s own reasoning abilities, on the other hand, was associated with worse performance on an objective measure of reasoning and greater endorsement of conspiracy theories.

“Our findings suggest that this widespread credulity … even among the formally educated population is partly due to overconfidence in one’s own reasoning,” the researchers said. “Similar to preconceived thinking, this delusion in form overestimation of his own Abilities have adaptive value: they protect one’s self-esteem, prevent the negative consequences of unwanted events, protect mental health, and potentially help deceive others.’

Furthermore, the relationship between conservatism and conspiracy beliefs was partially mediated by trust in science.

These results are important because they suggest that targeting trust in science could be a highly effective way to reduce conspiracy around the pandemic and promote public health initiatives such as coverage, vaccines and more.

“We showed that an overestimation of one’s reasoning, along with a lack of trust in science, contributes to the endorsement of epistemically suspect beliefs about the pandemic,” Vranic and her colleagues wrote. “Such beliefs have the opportunity to cause harm on a large scale. Directly debunking them is rarely successful, so identifying and addressing the precursors to such beliefs may prove more appropriate. Given the large variance in conspiracy thinking related to COVID-19 explained by (mis)trust in science/scientists, it appears that restoring this trust is the most promising avenue for designing interventions. However, in the case of COVID-19, it may be too late to implement such a large-scale top-down intervention.”

This study made important strides in better understanding factors associated with conspiracy beliefs about COVID-19. However, there are limitations that should be noted. One such limitation is that this study was conducted online, which could lead to a lack of attention or a lack of a fully representative sample. Additionally, this sample reported low levels of conspiracy belief, which could make it more difficult to identify contributing factors.

The study, ‘I did my own research’: Overconfidence, (dis)trust in science and endorsement of conspiracy theories’, was authored by Andrea Vranic, Ivana Hromatko and Mirjana Tonković.

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