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Coronavirus ‘Infodemic’: Fear Causes Misinformation Spread, More Rigid Thinking

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AUSTIN, Texas – Fear in response to COVID-19 causes people to think more rigidly and makes it harder for them to recognize misinformation and more likely to spread it, according to new research published this week in the journal Frontiers in Communication.

In the binational study conducted during the early months of the pandemic, researchers examined the influence of fear of COVID-19 on several social and cognitive factors among 565 adults living in Italy and the U.S. The greater effect coronavirus fears had on an individual, the more likely they were to:

  • misidentify and spread false or misleading information;
  • accept unverified information and share it, regardless of accuracy; and
  • believe untrue existential statements to be profound.

The researchers also analyzed participants’ propensity for polarized or “black-or-white” thinking and xenophobia, among other factors. The study showed that fear of the coronavirus influenced participants to engage in such rigid forms of thinking, and individuals who scored high on the polarization scale were less likely to detect misinformation and more likely to have poor problem-solving and analytical skills.

“Fear is one of the most powerful emotions we have, and while it’s very useful for our survival, it has a significant impact on the ‘infodemic’ we are witnessing worldwide,” said lead study author Carola Salvi, Ph.D., a research scientist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin.

Participants in the study responded to an extensive online survey conducted during March and April of 2020 at the peak of the initial spread of the virus. In addition to queries about their beliefs and experiences with COVID-19, respondents answered questions about the accuracy of real and fake news articles created by the researchers. They were also tested on their likelihood to overestimate the value of certain statements, they solved puzzles, and they answered logic problems to test their reasoning skills.

“In times of uncertainty, people often seek out information to help alleviate fear, possibly leaving them vulnerable to false information,” Salvi said.

At the beginning of the pandemic when information about COVID-19 was sparse and the world suddenly felt unstable, the positive association between coronavirus fears and the likelihood to believe and spread misinformation makes sense, Salvi said.

“Humans have a natural tendency to reduce their own fear and anxiety by looking for any information available,” she said. “They also want to feel more in control of their lives, which is probably why we saw that people who were more afraid about coronavirus started overestimating the value of seemingly profound statements that really weren’t so meaningful.”

Fear of COVID-19 also had some positive effects, according to the study. Greater fear was associated with participants seeking out information about the virus, efforts to avoid infection, and a desire to share real news with others.

“Fear makes you a closed-minded judge,” said Salvi, who warns against sharing information if there’s a question of its accuracy. She recommends a careful approach when consuming news media, with an acute awareness of the power emotions can have on humans’ ability to remain rational in the face of fear.

This research was conducted in collaboration with the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy, and with support from The Creativity Post.