“In conspiracies we trust”: interpersonal/institutional trust and beliefs in conspiracy theories during the COVID-19 pandemic
Academic research has shown that believing in conspiracy theories is common in contemporary democ-racies and that believing in such theories is particularly common in moments of crisis (such as wars, terrorist attacks, or pandemics). Scholars have attempted to understand the psychological and attitu-dinal elements that trigger conspiracism among the citizenry, finding that both interpersonal and insti-tutional trust negatively correlate with conspiracism. If, however, it is straightforward to expect that people who present low levels of institutional trust might present high levels of conspiracism (due to the consistency of the narratives that drive the two attitudes), no research has so far investigated the mechanism behind the relationship between interpersonal trust and beliefs in conspiracy theories. Using survey data collected in Italy at the beginning of June 2020, after the first pandemic wave in the country, the present contribution aims to identify a plausible socio-psychological mechanism that trig-gers this latter association. Using fixed-effect regression models, we show negative associations be-tween institutional/interpersonal trust and conspiracism – with the former coefficient being bigger than the latter. We also show that pandemic stress, measured as one’s perceived likelihood of being infected by the new Coronavirus, moderates both associations. In particular, at higher levels of pan-demic stress, the correlation between interpersonal trust and conspiracy is larger, while the opposite is true for the relationship with institutional trust. This is consistent with theories that see conspiracism as a simple explanation of a complex world, namely, a tool that people (especially low-interpersonal-trust individuals) employ to reduce stress and anxiety produced by an uncertain situation.
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