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published earlier this year found that in the United States Republicans
were more likely than Democrats to believe coronavirus (COVID-19)
related conspiracy theories.
The partisan split makes sense, given that one of the reasons people
believe conspiracy theories is to protect their political worldviews.
The current political context is one in which the Republican president
is being widely criticized for his handling of the pandemic. So
Republicans are more likely to believe that, for example, scientists or
the media are exaggerating the seriousness of the virus.
If the United
States had a Democratic president who was being criticized for his/her
handling of the pandemic, more Democrats would believe these COVID-19
conspiracy theories, said the study’s author, Joanne Miller, a professor
in the University of Delaware’s Department of Political Science and International Relations.
But a new study published in Cambridge University Press
and co-authored by Miller and fellow professor Erin Cassese found that
gender matters just as much as political affiliation. In a survey of
more than 3,000 people conducted in April, men were more likely than
women to endorse COVID-19 conspiracy theories.
The COVID-19 pandemic is an easy target for conspiracy theories. Most
of us are engulfed in worries over health, finances, jobs or our
childrens’ education and feel a lack of control.
“During a global pandemic, it's kind of the perfect storm of
uncertainty,” Miller said. “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. And 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
Working with Carleton College’s Christina Farhart, Miller and Cassese
used previous research as a jumping off point: Men and women are
experiencing the pandemic differently. For example, men are more
vulnerable to the virus, but women are more likely to be frontline
workers and experience more of a burden as the primary caregivers at
Those findings raised questions as to whether gender also influenced conspiracy theory beliefs.
To find out, the team ran a survey using 11 popular conspiracy
theories, including claims that China or the U.S. accidentally released
the virus; that 5G cell towers are causing the virus; that Bill Gates is
plotting to somehow inject us with a vaccine; and that scientists are
trying to make Donald Trump look bad by exaggerating the seriousness of
Among Democrats, there were statistically significant gender gaps for
all 11 conspiracy theories; among Republicans, there were gender gaps
for nine of the 11. The average gender gap among Democrats was 10.18%
points (32.45% males to 22.27% females endorsed the theories), compared
to 10.09% points among Republicans (48.9% males vs. 38.81% females). The
gender differences were notable, researchers said, given that gender
gaps in public opinion tend to be much smaller in magnitude, and the
results were surprising, given that past work has not found a consistent
association between gender and conspiracy theory beliefs.
So why men? Two dispositional factors are connected to the gender
gap. Learned helplessness, which is a feeling like everything's out of
your control and any actions that you try to take are basically
pointless; and conspiratorial thinking, which is a tendency to think
about major political events and problems in conspiratorial terms
without having any connection to, in this case, COVID-19.
The key factor is learned helplessness, which is experienced by both
men and women. Miller described the process: Some people, when faced
with repeated failures at trying to affect positive change in their
lives, come to believe that they are helpless to control the things that
they want to control.
The resulting general sense of learned helplessness can lead to conspiracy theory beliefs, Miller said.
“What we're finding in this research is that men are more likely to
score higher on learned helplessness,” Miller said. “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.”
Cassese added, “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
Miller and Cassese said they hope to use their findings to affect
positive change in public health. Recent research has found that women
were more likely than men to engage in protective behaviors that have
been recommended by scientists and health officials, such as wearing
masks and social distancing.
“So there may be some connection here between engaging in those
activities and belief in conspiracy theories that we plan on exploring
in future research,” Miller said.
Article by Peter Bothum; illustration by iStock
Published July 24, 2020
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