Cookies on this website
We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Continue' we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you won't see this message again. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

A new study from the University of Oxford shows that people who hold coronavirus conspiracy beliefs are less likely to comply with social distancing guidelines or take-up future vaccines.

Image of laptop displaying the BBC NEWS headline: 'coronavirus: Scientists brand 5G claims "Complete rubbish" '

The research, led by clinical psychologists at the University of Oxford and published today in the journal Psychological Medicine, indicates that a disconcertingly high number of adults in England do not agree with the scientific and governmental consensus on the coronavirus pandemic. The findings indicated that: 

  • 60% of adults believe to some extent that the government is misleading the public about the cause of the virus
  • 40% believe to some extent the spread of the virus is a deliberate attempt by powerful people to gain control
  • 20% believe to some extent that the virus is a hoax

From 4 to 11 May 2020, 2,500 adults, representative of the English population for age, gender, region, and income, took part in the Oxford Coronavirus Explanations, Attitudes, and Narratives Survey (OCEANS). Results indicate that half of the nation is excessively mistrustful and that this reduces the following of government coronavirus guidance.

Daniel Freeman, Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, and study lead, said: 'Our study indicates that coronavirus conspiracy beliefs matter. Those who believe in conspiracy theories are less likely to follow government guidance, for example, staying home, not meeting with people outside their household, or staying 2m apart from other people when outside. Those who believe in conspiracy theories also say that they are less likely to accept a vaccination, take a diagnostic test, or wear a facemask.'

Guidelines are only effective if the majority of people use them. This pandemic requires a unified response. However the high prevalence of conspiracy beliefs, and low level of trust in institutions, may impede the response to this crisis. The figures suggest a breakdown of trust between political and scientific leadership and a significant proportion of the English population.

Other beliefs endorsed by a significant minority include (further examples available in the paper):

  Do not agree Agree a little Agree moderately Agree a lot Agree completely
Coronavirus is a bioweapon developed by China to destroy the West. 54.6%
 
20.2%
 
11.7%
 
8.0% 5.5%
 
Jews have created the virus to collapse the economy for financial gain. 80.8%
 
5.3%
 
6.8%
 
4.6%
 
2.4%
 
Muslims are spreading the virus as an attack on Western values. 80.1%
 
5.9%
 
7.0%
 
4.6%
 
2.4%
 
Bill Gates has created the virus in order to reduce the world population. 79.0%
 
6.4%
 
6.6%
 
5.1%
 
3.0%
 
The WHO already has a vaccine and are withholding it. 70.9%
 
10.6%
 
9.3%
 
5.4%
 
3.8%
 
Celebrities are being paid to say they have coronavirus. 74.5%
 
8.5%
 
7.9%
 
5.6%
 
3.4%
 
Politicians (e.g. Boris Johnson) have faked having coronavirus. 73.5%
 
9.2%
 
8.1%
 
5.7%
 
3.6%
 

 

There is a fracture: most people largely accept official COVID-19 explanations and guidance; a significant minority do not. The potential consequences, however, affect us all. The details of the conspiracy theories differ, and can even be contradictory, but there is a prevailing attitude of deep suspicion. The epidemic has all the necessary ingredients for the growth of conspiracy theories, including sustained threat, exposure of vulnerabilities, and enforced change. The new conspiracy ideas have largely built on previous prejudices and conspiracy theories. The beliefs look to be corrosive to our necessary collective response to the crisis. In the wake of the epidemic, mistrust looks to have become mainstream.Professor Daniel Freeman, Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford.



Dr Sinéad Lambe, Clinical Psychologist, observed, 'Conspiracy thinking is not isolated to the fringes of society and likely reflects a growing distrust in the government and institutions. Conspiracy beliefs arguably travel further and faster than ever before. Our survey indicates that people who hold such beliefs share them; social media provides a ready-made platform.'

It is important to counter conspiracy theories directly and reduce the spread. That needs to be against a backdrop of building up trust again in important institutions and reducing the sense for too many people that they are in the margins. Trust is the foundation stone of communities, which a time of crisis makes only more apparent.

This research project is funded by the NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre.

NIHR OXFORD HEALTH BIOMEDICAL RESEARCH CENTRE NEWS

Please follow the link below to read the news on the NIHR BRC website.

Similar stories

New Study Shows Simvastatin Can Change the Way People Experience Certain Emotions

This new study examines the effects of simvastatin on emotional processing, reward learning, verbal memory, and inflammation.

Oxford researchers part of major UK initiative to understand chronic pain

Oxford pain researchers are playing a major role in a new multi-million pound research programme launched by a consortium of funders, including UKRI, Versus Arthritis, Eli Lilly and the Medical Research Foundation.

Anxiety Disorders Among Children, Assessment and Working with Families

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders among children, yet there is limited guidance on the process of assessing child anxiety disorders and sharing diagnostic outcomes with families.

Landmark New Clinical Trial Shows Benefits of Automated Virtual Reality (VR) Treatment for Severe Psychological Problems

The gameChange automated VR program is designed to treat agoraphobia in patients with psychosis. In the largest ever clinical trial of virtual reality for mental health, gameChange especially helped people whose anxiety had previously left them virtually housebound.

UK-Japanese Collaboration Researches Mental Health Challenges Faced by Young People and their Families

Dr Simona Skripkauskaite, Departments of Psychiatry and Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, is the UK lead for one of the ten collaborative research projects jointly awarded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), to address the challenges presented by the global pandemic.

Department of Psychiatry Recognition Awards

Today we announce the prize winners of the first Department of Psychiatry Recognition Awards. One award is designed to offer early career researchers (ECRs) the opportunity to showcase their work, motivations and aspirations for research into mental health. Alongside this we launch the 'Good Citizen' award, where all department members have been able to make nominations.