SAS advises how to deal with conspiracies, pseudoscience and hoaxes at the time of coronavirus
Scientists from the Institute of Experimental Psychology of the Centre of Social and Psychological Sciences SAS are dealing with conspiracies, pseudoscientific beliefs and other epistemically unwarranted beliefs. This becomes also an up-to-date subject in times of coronavirus pandemics.
“Our researches show that people incline mostly to conspiracies and pseudoscientific beliefs which are connected with health. It happens because these beliefs relate to our close personal threat and people often have little or no control over these things. Therefore, for some of us, such conspiracies and pseudoscience can serve as means of being able to handle this uneasy situation,” says the director of the Institute of Experimental Psychology, Peter Halama.
Pandemic, according to psychologists, naturally evokes anxiety, which is also known from history, when epidemics spread not only diseases, but also a deep fear of insecurity and it was this very fear that formed a fertile ground for creation and spread of theories or hoaxes.
“Our response to acute threats from the surrounding environment is often irrational, but simultaneously activating – in difficult situations we need to quickly find meaning, explanation and motivation, often at the cost of inverting the causality inside out, or attributing an intention on the events´ background to a person or group of people,” claims Ivan Brezina, researcher of IEP SAS and a co-editor of the book called Why people believe bullshit.
The spread of conspiracy and disinformation can also be targeted with the intention of creating uncertainty and anxiety, because when people are afraid they are easier to manipulate. “In such way, various manipulators can make use of the increased uncertainty and fear in order to stir up animosities towards specific groups of citizens, undermining trust in social institutions, or simply for their own enrichment. Among other things, people under the influence of pseudoscience can fail to take care of their health and take recourse to non-functional alternative methods,” states Vladimíra Čavojová, deputy director of IEP CSPS SAS and the project leader on cognitive failure.
The staff of IEP CSPS SAS present principles, which should help people in this situation to resist pseudoscience and conspiracies and to defend themselves against unverified hoaxes. These several principles serve as means for healthy scepticism, even against deceptions and intentional manipulation:
- When you read the report (especially of particular concern), search for the confirmation of these information also from the independent source. For instance, look what the browser spits out when you enter the key words such as “ibuprofen” and “coronavirus”, or whether this report did not appear meanwhile on the police office website, which monitors Hoaxes: https://www.facebook.com/hoaxPZ/
- Check out the author and his expertise when reading the report. Did your friend or the state hygiene officer share the specific information?
- Does the report refer to a specific source or authority (and thus can it be confirmed), or does it speak about “hidden sources”, “Austrian scientists” and so on? The hoax with ibuprofen had referred to the university in Vienna, so the report was verified as untrue very quickly and the university in Vienna had disavowed from it. Therefore, hoaxes often make use of referring to unverifiable sources (a friend from Italy), which should make you more alert.
- Look for alternative explanations. Is there only one possible explanation or can the specific report be explained differently? Think about other explanations as well and after that decide for the one for which there are more proofs.
- Engage your observation of language and emotions. Is the report objective or does it use emotionally charged language that evokes fear and need for immediate reaction? For example, when you read the report on your social network about ibuprofen, which makes the course of the COVID-19 disease worse, just stop for a moment before sharing the report any further and notice what feeling did the report stirred up in us – the feeling of threat, and therefore the need to act immediately. Emotions are usually a good signal to act (this is their primary function), but those few additional minutes which you devote to thinking about the fact that the main aim of the report is to arouse fear and immediate reaction can help you start the “cold” processes in your head and you can move forward to next points.
- Engage your observation of your beliefs as well. Do you believe the report because it says what you think or does it propagate your explanation or is it because it brings sufficient evidence? Especially those hoaxes and conspiracies, which talk about bad intentions of various authorities (government, scientists, freemasons, etc.) can be also massively shared, because they confirm people´s natural distrust of certain authorities.
- Quantify. Put numbers into context. Does the report say anything about specific numbers and give them context? It is a difference, when we talk about 10% of 100 and when we talk about 10% of 1 000 000.
- And one last tip: Measure the amount of news. Although the situation is serious and no one knows with certainty how the next days will unfold, it is highly probable that the urgent reports will get to you, be it one way or another. Compulsive monitoring of social networks, which distorts our perception based on in which social bubble we find ourselves, can bring on more anxiety than what is healthy for us.