‘Perfect storm of uncertainty’: Men more likely to believe COVID-19 conspiracy theories

NEWARK, Del. — Surprisingly, a new study finds gender is a more accurate predictor of COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs than political affiliation. Researchers from the University of Delaware say that men are more likely than women to endorse and spread COVID-19 conspiracy theories.

Unfounded claims regarding the coronavirus are everywhere these days. Moreover, just like everything else in 2020, the vast majority of these conspiracies come with a political twist. For instance, one theory among some radical conservative circles is the assertion that COVID-19 is being blown out of proportion to sabotage President Trump’s chances in the upcoming 2020 election. Other, more fringe conspiracies include nefarious global cabals, Chinese labs, and even Dr. Anthony Fauci.

So, it’s clear that politics are at least somewhat involved in the coronavirus conspiracy theory surge. Moreover, the results of an earlier study by UD researchers backs up that notion. In that study, professor Joanne Miller concluded that Republicans are more likely than Democrats to believe coronavirus conspiracy theories.

Now, however, professor Miller’s latest research finds that gender trumps even political beliefs.

It shouldn’t be all that surprising that COVID-19 is sparking a wave of outlandish conspiracy theories. The past five years or so have already given rise to a troubling trend of misinformation online. Furthermore, the coronavirus really is quite mysterious. Scientists are still working around the clock to fully understand the virus, its nature, and where it came from. Mix all that together with the collective surge of fear, uncertainty, and anxiety Americans have been feeling since March, and the average person is probably going to be a bit more receptive to a conspiracy theory.

“During a global pandemic, it’s kind of the perfect storm of uncertainty,” professor Miller says in a release. “And so when we feel a lack of control, uncertainty or powerlessness, we seek out explanations for why the event occurred that’s causing us to feel that way. What this can do is it can lead us to connect dots that shouldn’t be connected because we’re trying to seek out answers. And sometimes those answers are conspiracy theories.”

Men, women, politics and COVID-19 conspiracy theories

To start their research, the study’s authors decided to look at the differences in how men and women are experiencing the coronavirus pandemic. Men are somewhat more vulnerable to the virus, but women are also more likely to be frontline workers or take on the role of primary caregiver at home. This line of thinking led is behind the researchers’ belief that gender probably does influence one’s chances of believing COVID-19 conspiracies.

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Next, surveys were administered to 3,000 people. Those surveys asked respondents if they believed 11 popular coronavirus conspiracy theories. For example, one included theory was that Bill Gates wants to inject everyone with a vaccine. Another theory states that COVID-19 was accidentally released by the United States.

Among surveyed Democrats, the results show significant gender gaps for all 11 theories. Republicans show gender gaps for nine of the theories. For Democrats, the gender gap was 10.18% points. This means 32.45% of surveyed liberal males believe the conspiracies, while 22.27% of surveyed liberal women feel the same. The conservative gender gap was 10.09% points, meaning 48.9% males believe the conspiracies versus 38.81% females.

These statistics surprise even the study’s authors. Drastic gender gaps regarding public opinion topics are rarely seen, and earlier studies on conspiracies have never shown a big connection between belief and one’s gender. Regardless, the numbers speak for themselves; far more men than women say they believe the theories.

Why the difference?

As far as why men are believing coronavirus conspiracies more than women, the research team point to two “dispositional factors.” The first is “learned helplessness,” or the feeling that everything is out of one’s control. The second factor is “conspiratorial thinking,” or the tendency to automatically view major events, political occurrences, or problems as a part of some larger plot.

Among the two traits, researchers say learned helplessness is of particular importance to these findings.

“What we’re finding in this research is that men are more likely to score higher on learned helplessness,” professor Miller comments. “And that might be a boost that’s happening just as a result of the pandemic itself, that they’re feeling more of this because they can’t control what’s going on right now. That leads to these beliefs that, well, maybe there’s a secret group of people controlling these things behind the scenes.”

“It’s something that both men and women can experience, but in our study we’re finding that it’s men who are really feeling this more at this moment, and it’s influencing how they feel about COVID. Learned helplessness and a predisposition toward conspiratorial thinking explain about half of the gender difference that we find. But there’s still more for us to do to try to understand this phenomenon,” notes study co-author Erin Cassese, a professor at the University of Delaware.

The study is published in Politics and Gender.

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