Belief in COVID‐19 Conspiracy Theories Reduces Social Distancing over Time – Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being – 2020-08-30

Conspiracy theories about the origins of COVID‐19 are widespread and have even been propagated by highly ranked state officials and politicians in the US. Health authorities have cautioned that such theories, although not questioning the existence of the pandemic, may increase the spread of the virus by reducing people’s efforts to socially distance.

We test this proposition empirically using longitudinal survey data collected at five timepoints during the early outbreak of the virus in the US (N = 403).

Multivariate growth curve analyses showed that, although conspiracy beliefs decreased and social distancing increased over time, people holding more conspiracy beliefs at the beginning of the pandemic showed the lowest increase in social distancing. Moreover, cross‐lagged analyses demonstrated that people who reported more conspiracy beliefs at any wave tended to report less social distancing at the following wave.

Our findings show that COVID‐19 conspiracy theories pose a significant threat to public health as they may reduce adherence to social distancing measures.

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