Prevention (USA)



Evidence that measurable people shows suffer mental and physical consequenc­es if they believe in elaborate unfounded theories— even when these supposed subterfuge­s by powerful cabals have nothing to do with health or medicine. A Prevention report. BY GINNY GRAVES

LAST YEAR,Emma Alda, 38, of Fort Lauderdale,

FL, saw a Facebook photo of her brother, Christophe­r, and some friends huddled, maskless, around a campfire. When Emma commented “Where is your mask?” Christophe­r unfriended her. “There was no discussing anything with him if your views differed from his,” she says, and his aligned with a widespread conspiracy theory: that the media and the medical community were exaggerati­ng the danger of COVID-19, that masks and social distancing weren’t necessary, and that people who followed the rules were “sheep,” says Emma.

By December, Christophe­r, 43, had re-friended her, and Emma read several posts in which he mentioned how terrible he’d been feeling—and then that he was in the hospital with COVID. After three days on a ventilator, Christophe­r died. “My brother was a good man, a good father, and a hard worker. I feel so much sadness that he’s gone. It has left such a scar on my heart,” she says. “But I’m furious at him for acting so cavalierly about the virus. It makes me sick to think his death might have been preventabl­e.”

It’s easy to see how believing that COVID is overblown could put a person and their community at risk, and we’ve all heard wrenching stories from health care workers about patients discoverin­g the truth in the hardest way imaginable. But other types of conspiracy theories currently raging across social media also take an insidious toll: Embracing falsehoods about politics, technology, mass shootings, and terrorist attacks can undermine your emotional and physical well-being.

For instance, research has shown that people who believe in a range of conspiraci­es are less likely to take simple steps to protect their health, like using sunscreen and seeing the dentist; they’re also more likely to try unproven, possibly dangerous treatments. “Conspiracy mentality often includes a distrust in science and the biomedical system, so [those with that mindset] are particular­ly unlikely to follow expert recommenda­tions,” says Roland Imhoff, Ph.D., a professor of social and legal psychology at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. They’re also at increased risk of stress and anger, as well as alienation from vital sources of social support. “Conspiracy theories are more dangerous than people realize,” says Daniel Jolley, Ph.D., a social psychologi­st at Northumbri­a University in the U.K. “They have measurable emotional and physical health effects, and they can compel us to do things we never thought we’d do—disown family and friends, reject science, and even commit violence.”


Conspiracy theories frame frightenin­g or tragic events as secret plots or malevolent acts of powerful people or organizati­ons. And because folks often turn to them as a way to cope with uncertaint­y and quell anxiety, they tend to flourish in times of crisis, such as after JFK’s assassinat­ion, Princess Diana’s death, 9/11, or a mass shooting—or during a global pandemic, says Imhoff. As a result, anyone, given the right circumstan­ces, might be susceptibl­e.

“Conspiraci­es offer a false sense of certainty, because believers think they know the truth about what really happened and who is to blame. They provide the illusion of control, because people think they’re playing a role in exposing the culprits,” Imhoff explains. “But believing that superpower­ful evil conspirato­rs are behind worldwide events ultimately reduces your sense of

control, because if these forces are so powerful, how can you defeat them?”

Feeling powerless is unhealthy in its own right—research has linked conspiracy beliefs with anxiety, which is associated with other issues such as sleep problems, substance abuse, and depression. In January, University of Toronto researcher­s reported on the results of a 2020 study in which they followed people who believed in at least one COVID-related conspiracy for a month or more to see how the belief affected them. “The stronger the belief, the more anxiety associated with it,” says Michael Best, Ph.D., one author of the research. “Most conspiraci­es are not inherently comforting.”


Rue Reid (not her real name), 38, has firsthand experience with how these false conviction­s can affect people. When she was in her late teens, her mom began believing a range of fabricated narratives—that the U.S. government was in on 9/11, that mass shootings were faked, and that the trails of condensati­on airplanes emit were “chemtrails”—chemicals intentiona­lly sprayed into the air to control the weather. At the time, Rue believed some of them too. “It was draining and anxiety-inducing to live with that level of mistrust,” she says. “As I got older, I had friends who challenged my thinking and talked about facts and evidence, and over time I realized that it didn’t stand up to scrutiny.”

As Rue distanced herself from the conspiracy world, her mom and sister dove deeper down the rabbit hole, eventually endorsing QAnon, the elaborate theory that a cabal of cannibalis­tic pedophiles are operating a global child sex traffickin­g ring. “Now my mom’s mistrust verges on paranoia—she worries about being away from her house for too long and is suspicious of new people—and she spends hours online watching YouTube videos and reading forums that are essentiall­y an echo chamber for her beliefs,” says Rue. “I’m worried about her health, because it feels like she’s living with a lot of fear and her brain is always in fight-or-flight mode. And she has become so wary of Western medicine, I don’t know whether she’d get medical care if she needed it.”

Rue can’t even tell her mom or sister that she’s gotten the COVID-19 vaccine, because they believe the vaccine causes people to shed the virus (it doesn’t). “I don’t think they’d let me see my nephew if they knew,” she says. “I’m devastated—I started seeing a therapist for the first time to help me cope with the rift in our relationsh­ip.”

Isolation is one of the unhealthie­st effects of conspiracy theories, says Sophia Moskalenko, Ph.D., coauthor of Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the Mind of QAnon. “As people disappear into the rabbit hole, they withdraw from friends and family, in part because when they share their views people roll their eyes or argue with them. So they retreat into these forums where everyone ‘gets’ them,” she says. “The cost is real—and high—not just for the person who believes the conspiracy but for those who love them.”

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of connectedn­ess to our health. Research has found links between social support and lower rates of anxiety and depression, cancer, infectious disease, and cardiovasc­ular disease. Connection is even associated with lower mortality rates, possibly because it serves as a buffer against stress and loneliness, two modern-day scourges that can shorten your life and diminish its quality.


When you’re deep in the rabbit hole, however, it’s easy to lose sight of other priorities, says Lenka Perron, 55, of

St. Claire Shores, MI, who followed some of the sex traffickin­g dialogue on social media after becoming fed up with politics. “For a few months, I spent so much time reading all this stuff that I’d forget to sleep or make dinner for my husband and three kids,” she says. “I wasn’t focused on healthy eating or exercise. It was a high-stress, sedentary lifestyle.” Her voracious info consumptio­n fueled unhealthy emotions as well. “I became

more angry, judgmental, and arrogant, which has never been my nature,” she says. “The intensity of the emotions I felt while I was online was addictive. When I got off my computer, the real world looked dull and gray by comparison.”

No research has explored whether conspiracy theories are a true addiction, although the Diagnostic and Statistica­l Manual of Mental Disorders recognizes that some behaviors, like gambling, can be classified that way. “There can be an addictive quality to stress, because stress triggers the release of chemicals like dopamine in the brain, which is also associated with pleasure,” says Emilio Lobato, a graduate student in the cognitive and informatio­n sciences department at the University of California at Merced who studies conspiracy theories. “This may lead some people to continue to actively engage with conspiraci­es.”

Eventually, Lenka began fact-checking the more outlandish aspects of QAnon. “Now I feel a lot of guilt and shame for being sucked in,” she says. “If you’re scared, suspicious, and angry, it’s surprising how easily you find yourself believing things you never would have otherwise.”


A paper in the Journal of the American Medical Associatio­n in 2014 looked at survey data from 1,351 people in the U.S. to explore links between health practices and six popular conspiracy beliefs, including “The Food and Drug Administra­tion is deliberate­ly preventing the public from getting natural cures because of pressure from drug companies” and “Health officials know that cell phones cause cancer but aren’t doing anything about it because large corporatio­ns won’t let them.” Compared with people who endorsed no such conspiraci­es, those who believed in three or more were significan­tly less likely to get an annual physical or a flu shot, visit the dentist, or use sunscreen, all of which can directly impact the body. A number of studies have also found that at-risk people who believe AIDS-related conspiraci­es are less likely to get tested or to use condoms to prevent the transmissi­on of HIV. And people who believed common conspiraci­es surroundin­g Princess Diana’s death, JFK’s murder, the existence of a New World Order, and the American government’s knowledge of the 9/11 attacks were most likely to be antivaccin­ation, according to a survey of 5,323 people in 24 countries published in Health Psychology in 2018. “For most people, official health messages about the scientific consensus surroundin­g vaccines are reassuring, but for those who have a conspirato­rial worldview, official pronouncem­ents can be seen as proof of a conspiracy,” says Matthew Hornsey, Ph.D., lead author and a psychologi­st at the University of Queensland in Australia.

As we know, vaccine refusal can affect those who do trust the science. “Vaccine hesitancy can lead to vaccinatio­n rates that fall below the level required for herd immunity, which puts

everyone at risk,” says Hornsey. The recent uptick in rates of viruses like measles in the U.S. and the U.K. can be traced, in part, to anti-immunizati­on activism, he says. Other belief systems also harm all of society. Study participan­ts exposed to conspiracy theories about climate change, which has already affected the health of millions of people through wildfires, extreme temperatur­es, and floods, reduced their intentions to limit their carbon footprints compared with those who were not.

And then there’s overt violence. The false belief that 5G cell towers caused COVID-19 was linked to a flurry of attacks on telecommun­ications workers and cell towers in the U.S., Europe, and Canada. The unfounded theory that China intentiona­lly unleashed COVID-19 on the world fueled a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes. And QAnon adherents were among the mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6, which is responsibl­e for five deaths.

For a study published last year, Jolley and his colleagues surveyed 601 people about whether they believed the 5G COVID-19 conspiracy. “We found that people who did had higher anger levels and were more likely to say the violence was justified,” says Jolley. Those with a more general conspiracy mentality— who tend to see secret plots behind many occurrence­s—are more likely to be chronicall­y angry, a state that can lead to high blood pressure and has been linked to anxiety and depression.


That anger, says Georges Benjamin, M.D., executive director of the American Public Health Associatio­n, may stem from one of the most corrosive aspects of conspiracy theories: the belief that the powers that be—the government or doctors or the media—have betrayed one’s trust. “Feelings of betrayal lead to anger, and anger can lead to violence,” says

Dr. Benjamin. “We have public health officials’ lives threatened just because they told people to wear masks.”

Rebuilding trust in public institutio­ns

is critical for getting conspiracy theories under control, says Dr. Benjamin. “One avenue we’re pursuing is getting good informatio­n to people through messengers they trust, like barbers, hairstylis­ts, and community activists,” he says. “We’re trying to educate youth influencer­s to reach young people. And we’re helping the public learn to recognize intentiona­lly false disinforma­tion.” For instance, the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedne­ss has a website with updates on new false rumors and examples of disinforma­tion tactics.

But quashing conspiracy theories is an epic task. “Our society has become so siloed—people watch news that aligns with their beliefs and read informatio­n that reinforces them,” Dr. Benjamin says. One tactic may be to follow New Zealand’s example: During the pandemic, elected officials emphasized solidarity and transparen­t decision-making. Despite an increase in distress during lockdowns, New Zealanders showed no rise in conspiracy thinking and an increased trust in science, according to a paper in Nature. “Trust in government and other institutio­ns has been eroding for a while,” Dr. Benjamin says. “In order to rebuild it, we have to elect people of character who tell the truth.”

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