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How threat perceptions relate to learning and conspiracy beliefs about COVID-19: Evidence from a panel study

Authors
  • Heiss, Raffael
  • Gell, Sascha
  • Röthlingshöfer, Esther
  • Zoller, Claudia
Type
Published Article
Journal
Personality and Individual Differences
Publisher
Elsevier
Publication Date
Jan 22, 2021
Volume
175
Pages
110672–110672
Identifiers
DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2021.110672
PMID: 33518866
PMCID: PMC7825816
Source
PubMed Central
Keywords
Disciplines
  • Article
License
Unknown

Abstract

According to appraisal theory, individuals cope with perceived threats in different ways. If engaging in problem-focused coping, for example, they may seek information useful for eliminating the root cause of the threat. However, during crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, people tend to navigate complex information environments marked by high levels of uncertainty. In such contexts, individuals may adopt maladaptive behaviours—for instance, avoiding information or switching to pseudo-epistemic coping—in which they engage with non-scientific explanations. As a consequence, they may learn less from their information environment and become susceptible to conspiracy theories. Against that background, we investigated how threat perceptions relate to learning, believing in conspiracy claims and conspiracy thinking in context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Drawing from two-wave panel data, we found that threat perceptions were associated with a decrease in knowledge and an increase in believing conspiracy claims. Taken together, our findings indicate that high levels of threat perceptions in uncertain information environments may impede societal learning and encourage conspiracy beliefs. Thus, although provoking general anxiety may support short-term political goals, including adherence to policy during crises, accumulated threat perceptions may adversely affect citizens' motivation to cooperate in the long term.

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