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Little is known about how conspiracy beliefs and health responses are interrelated over time during the course of the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic. This longitudinal study tested two contrasting, but not mutually exclusive, hypotheses through cross-lagged modeling. First, based on the consequential nature of conspiracy beliefs, we hypothesize that conspiracy beliefs predict an increase in detrimental health responses over time. Second, as people may rationalize their behavior through conspiracy beliefs, we hypothesize that detrimental health responses predict increased conspiracy beliefs over time.
We measured conspiracy beliefs and several health-related responses (i.e. physical distancing, support for lockdown policy, and the perception of the coronavirus as dangerous) at three phases of the pandemic in the Netherlands (N = 4913): During the first lockdown (Wave 1: April 2020), after the first lockdown (Wave 2: June 2020), and during the second lockdown (Wave 3: December 2020).
For physical distancing and perceived danger, the overall cross-lagged effects supported both hypotheses, although the standardized effects were larger for the effects of conspiracy beliefs on these health responses than vice versa. The within-person change results only supported an effect of conspiracy beliefs on these health responses, depending on the phase of the pandemic. Furthermore, an overall cross-lagged effect of conspiracy beliefs on reduced support for lockdown policy emerged from Wave 2 to 3.
The results provide stronger support for the hypothesis that conspiracy beliefs predict health responses over time than for the hypothesis that health responses predict conspiracy beliefs over time.
Conspiracy beliefs are associated with detrimental health attitudes during the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic. Most prior research on these issues was cross-sectional, however, and restricted to attitudes or behavioral intentions. The current research was designed to examine to what extent conspiracy beliefs predict health behavior and well-being over a longer period of time.
In this preregistered multi-wave study on a large Dutch research panel (weighted to provide nationally representative population estimates), we examined if conspiracy beliefs early in the pandemic (April 2020) would predict a range of concrete health and well-being outcomes eight months later (December 2020; N = 5745).
The results revealed that Covid-19 conspiracy beliefs prospectively predicted a decreased likelihood of getting tested for corona; if tested, an increased likelihood of the test coming out positive; and, an increased likelihood of having violated corona regulations, deteriorated economic outcomes (job loss; reduced income), experiences of social rejection, and decreased overall well-being. Most of these effects generalized to a broader susceptibility to conspiracy theories (i.e. conspiracy mentality).
These findings suggest that conspiracy beliefs are associated with a myriad of negative life outcomes in the long run. Conspiracy beliefs predict how well people have coped with the pandemic over a period of eight months, as reflected in their health behavior, and their economic and social well-being.