Zika knowledge and conspiracy beliefs share similar psychological motivations

“Infectious disease outbreaks can induce feelings of threat, uncertainty, and loss of control in people, feelings that have been associated with both increased information seeking and the emergence of conspiracy theories,” Aaron Scherer, PhD, associate in General Internal Medicine, said.

Consistent with his past studies, Scherer conducted yet another survey-based study assessing the factors that influence the general public’s understanding of medical topics; this time focusing on public knowledge about the Zika virus and the development of Zika virus conspiracy beliefs. Funding from two grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), one to Scherer’s team and another to a team of researchers from New York University (NYU), allowed both teams to collect the data used in the article just published in Risk Analysis.

In 2015, on an NSF grant while at the University of Michigan, Scherer and Angela Fagerlin, PhD, explored factors that shape the public’s responses to infectious diseases with pandemic risk, such as Ebola and influenza. The focus shifted to the Zika virus when it began emerging as a serious public health threat in Brazil, and Scherer became interested in the possibility of examining the endorsement of Zika conspiracy beliefs that he had read were emerging in Brazil.

“It seemed inevitable that we would eventually have cases of local Zika transmission in the US, so I saw an opportunity to assess how Americans’ knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and reactions to Zika might change as the Zika epidemic in Brazil progressed into a worldwide pandemic,” Scherer said. After meeting first author Rachael Piltch-Loeb at a conference, Scherer and Piltch-Loeb collaborated on writing their publication that features their complementary datasets: Scherer’s data on Zika conspiracy beliefs and Piltch-Loeb’s data on Zika knowledge.

The combination of their datasets revealed that the same psychological factors can lead to both an improved knowledge of Zika as well as increased misconceptions. Scherer and Piltch-Loeb also found that the psychological and demographic associations with Zika knowledge and conspiracy beliefs were different before and after local Zika transmission in the United States.

Scherer hopes this study will inspire more researchers to examine the interconnections between the development of infectious disease knowledge and conspiracy beliefs. “Measuring both in the same participants will allow us to better identify the factors that differentiate between increasing peoples’ infectious disease knowledge versus conspiracy beliefs; insights that could be used to improve how we communicate to the public during pandemics and ideally design interventions to ‘inoculate’ people against developing conspiracy theories during pandemics,” Scherer said.

The team of researchers include Scherer, Piltch-Loeb and David Abramson from NYU, Fagerlin from the University of Utah, Brian Zikmund-Fisher and Megan Knaus from the University of Michigan, Laura Scherer from the University of Colorado, and Victoria Shaffer from the University of Missouri.

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