Consider COVID Attitude Changes, Part 5: Conspiracy Theories

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The Coronavirus is exaggerated, the fatality numbers are being cooked, and the media is just hyping the crisis for political reasons. The treatments are being kept from us, and the quarantine is just a dry run for an upcoming transition to socialism or authoritarianism. And, worst of all, Bill Gates is using the crisis as well as the vaccine (currently locked in a  safe), in order to dramatically reduce the world’s population. To those listening to mainstream public health experts, those can sound like fringe positions, but a substantial minority in the country is giving at least some of them credibility. A new Pew survey, for example, shows that 29 percent believe the virus was developed in a lab, with 23 percent saying it was engineered intentionally.

In part, these conspiracy theories have gained traction due to our fractured media and the fact that there are few to no sources of news that have credibility to all groups across the spectrum. But in part, it is a result of the historically-observed tendency for the public to turn to conspiracy theories in times of uncertainty or panic. When people feel vulnerable and threatened, it gives them a perception of order and control to believe that events are being directed by some kind of central actor, even if it is a malevolent one.  And rather than consisting of specific beliefs on discrete issues, this kind of thinking tends to be a mindset or a worldview, a “conspiracy mentality,” with its adherents rejecting experts, elites, the government, and the conventional sources of information on many topics.  That, of course, can put these conspiracy theorists outside the norm when it comes to their views and behavior. A recent study (Pummerer & Sassenberg, 2020)  shows that belief in conspiracy theories in the coronavirus context correlate with reduced  support for governmental regulations and social distancing. In this post, I will share four persuasive takeaways for dealing with the conspiracy-minded.

Don’t Assume Trust in an Official Narrative

The rise of a slice of the population that is virulently anti-government has implications for the court system, which is itself a system based on authority and expertise. There are a number of factors in a trial that could be cast in the frame of a distrusted authority figure: a government regulation, an expert witness, the legal instructions. 

It is not necessarily the case that a conspiracy-minded juror would consciously reject any of these, but it could be more the case that a habit of distrusting the “official narrative” might cause them to search for failures of proof or justification. Because contrarianism might be built into a juror’s mindset, they may have some strong motivations to doubt an aspect of your case that you might take for granted. Instead of assuming that jurors will follow authority, give justifications wherever possible.

Address Vulnerability and Anxiety

As you consider the justifications you offer, think about the source of the mindset in the first place. A very recent Slovakian study (Šrol, Mikušková & Čavojová, 2020) found that a lack of trust in institutions dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic is correlated with feelings of anxiety and a lack of control. And a fear-based response, in turn, motivates conspiracy-thinking in order to reestablish that feeling of control.

Some litigation approaches, the plaintiffs’ Reptile strategy, for example, seek to create theses feelings of anxiety and personal risk. For the better part of the population that already feels that way right now, it is possible that they will be pre-primed, to some extent, for Reptile-style appeals. Or, alternately, it is possible that any risk that a plaintiff could emphasize will pale in comparison to what jurors are already feeling. We will need to see once trials start again. But the important point is to not take jurors’ feelings for granted, since they are likely to influence their attitudes toward your case.

Find Common Ground

It is unlikely that anyone is going to be talked out of a deeply-held conspiracy belief, either in or out of court. People don’t lightly abandon views that are relevant to their self-concepts, and conspiracy-based views have a self-sealing nature: If you try to refute it, that just means that you are part of the problem or aiding the conspiracy.

For that reason, the conventional advice for dealing with conspiracy thinkers is to try and find some common ground.  For example, if someone believes that all of the concern over climate change is one big conspiracy, then it is likely that this person also accepts economic advantages over any environmental advantage. So, if you could argue that something that happens to be good for the environment, like renewable energy, could be even better for the economy, or for America’s energy independence, then you have a chance to break that kind of thinking. It is this search for common ground that sometimes causes corporate defendants to acknowledge that they have a profit motive (aka “greed”), but that this motive led them to do the right thing.

Encourage Analysis

One final piece of advice is to encourage more careful and analytical thinking. That might sound naive, but there does seem to be a connection. Another recent study (Swami & Barron, 2020) conducted in the midst of the pandemic (…it seems like academics may have additional time on their hands), shows that coronavirus-based conspiracy thinking varies in relation to analytical thinking: The more analytical, the more likely the participants will reject conspiracy thinking. Yes, in this study, analytical thinking is measured as a trait (something that some people have more of than others), but we know that analytical thinking can also be a state (something that the same people have more in some situations than in other situations). In litigation, there is often a conflict between the kinds of conclusions that are formed easily based on first impression, and the kinds conclusions that are reached after more thorough and careful reflection. If you find yourself wanting to respond to a perceived conspiracy, then it is likely that you will want to emphasize easy, effective, and visual teaching in order to encourage jurors to adapt the more analytical path.

And, for the month ahead, here’s hoping that society does the same.

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Pummerer, L., & Sassenberg, K. (2020). Conspiracy Theories in Times of Crisis and their Societal Effects: Case “Corona”. Pre-print: https://psyarxiv.com/y5grn

Šrol, J., Mikušková, E. B., & Cavojova, V. (2020). When we are worried, what are we thinking? Anxiety, lack of control, and conspiracy beliefs amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Pre-print: https://psyarxiv.com/f9e6p/

Swami, V., & Barron, D. (2020). Analytic Thinking, Rejection of Coronavirus (COVID-19) Conspiracy Theories, and Compliance with Mandated Social-Distancing: Direct and Indirect Relationships in a Nationally Representative Sample of Adults in the United Kingdom. Pre-print: https://osf.io/nmx9w/

Image credit: 123rf.com, used under license, edited by author.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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