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By Anja van den Berg

This year we have had to protect ourselves not only from a deadly pandemic but also from some dangerous mindsets.

Worldwide, moral panic has flourished and conspiracy theories have been spreading. Some claim that the COVID-19 virus is a hostile attack, a hoax perpetuated by Big Pharma, or even the consequence of 5G networks. And, while these ideas may seem ludicrous, they can cause serious harm.

“Belief in these views undermines people’s trust in established organisations and tested, scientific solutions,” says Tanya Menon, a professor of Management and Human Resources. “It can lead to destructive behaviour, such as rejecting medical recommendations in favour of unproven treatments.”

Menon and her team have found that feeling a lack of control makes people much more susceptible to believe in conspiracies — a revelation that’s particularly significant against the backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis.

Menon explains that when people experience loss of control, they tend to search for illusory patterns in their environment. These patterns are appealing because they reduce the environment’s randomness, uncertainty, and disorder – even if the so-called certainty they offer is absurd or unpleasant.

Fortunately, it’s possible to buffer yourself and those around you against susceptibility to conspiracy theories.

Menon and her team’s work shows that the way people think about control determines their vulnerability to these theories.

Specifically, they found that individuals with a ‘promotion-focused’ mindset are more resistant to conspiracy theories than those with a ‘prevention-focused’ mindset.  People with a promotion-focused mindset tend to focus on achieving their goals and aspirations. In contrast, those with a prevention-focused mindset concentrate on protecting what they already have. Those with a promotion focus tend to emphasise shaping their own futures, which evokes a greater sense of control.

A greater sense of control makes people less vulnerable to conspiracy theories. Menon recommends the following steps to help ourselves, and those around us, feel a sense of structure and control:

  1. Direct your energy towards your circles of control

Research shows that understanding your locus of control can help avoid feelings of powerlessness. Menon recommends that you visualise three concentric circles. The smallest represents what you can control directly, the next is that which you can influence. The largest circle symbolises those factors that are beyond your control. Which areas are absorbing most of your attention? Direct your focus and effort to the areas where you can exert more control and influence.

  1. Embrace complexity

Conspiracy theories are alluring because they offer a single-layer narrative, in contrast to the complex and nuanced reality. While complex stories involving intricate interactions feel less satisfying, we need to, at least, consider a multi-layered reality. Do you tend to latch on to information that makes single stories more extreme? Anybody can fall victim to conspiracy theories if they let their guard down. Make sure you cross-reference the information you receive with reliable and vetted sources.

  1. Use promotion-focused language

Leaders can accentuate those aspects that their team has control over and empower them to proactively influence their personal situations. However, it can be tempting to force people to follow scientific or common-sense guidelines. Yet, messages which make people feel powerless and take away their choices often backfire. The result is unintentionally weakening their sense of control, making conspiracies more appealing. For instance, instead of scolding them about wearing masks – which can feel like a threat to people’s freedom – reframe masks as a source of control and personal safety.

The COVID-19 crisis has brought a myriad of uncertainty and, with it, feelings of loss and limited choices. While we cannot avoid the distress that comes with the pandemic, we can buffer ourselves, and the people closest to us, against the added anxiety of conspiracy theories. You can help them to cope with uncertainty by guiding them towards regaining a sense of power.



Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2020/07/how-to-inoculate-your-team-against-conspiracy-theories

Sage Journals: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0146167218775070

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