Believers in conspiracy theories are more prone to taking alternative medicines

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New research conducted in France has found that people with more pronounced conspiracy beliefs showed lower intentions to take conventional medicines and higher intentions to take alternative medicines. Individuals with stronger beliefs in generic conspiracy theories also held stronger conspiracy beliefs specifically related to chemotherapy. The study was published in the British Journal of Health Psychology.

Conspiracy beliefs are defined as attempts to explain ultimate causes of significant political and social events with claims of secret plots, collusion, or manipulation by powerful individuals or other entities. These explanations may or may not be true. Conspiracy beliefs often arise in response to perceived inconsistencies, uncertainties, or distrust in official narratives, typically regarding events that represent a threat to the individual.

People who hold conspiracy beliefs may be motivated by a desire to make sense of complex events, regain a sense of control, or express skepticism toward authorities. Conspiracy beliefs can encompass a wide range of subjects, including politics, science, health, and social issues. While some conspiracy beliefs may be rooted in genuine concerns or unanswered questions, others may lack substantial evidence and contribute to the spread of misinformation. Studies indicate that individuals endorsing specific conspiracy beliefs also tend to endorse other conspiracy beliefs, reflecting a generalized conspiracy mindset.

As health is an important topic for most people, many conspiracy beliefs revolve around health issues. For example, the recent COVID-19 pandemic proved to be a very fruitful ground for the development of various conspiracy beliefs, ranging from beliefs about powerful entities hiding effective medicines, or inventing the pandemic itself, to various beliefs about secret sinister plans behind vaccination.

Study authors Valentyn Fournier and Florent Varet wanted to explore the links between generic and specific conspiracy beliefs and intentions to use conventional or complementary and alternative medicines. They hypothesized that the general tendency to endorse conspiracy beliefs will make individuals more likely to endorse specific conspiracy beliefs about chemotherapy. These authors also expected that individuals endorsing conspiracy beliefs would be less willing to use conventional medicine, but more willing to use alternative and complementary medicine. They conducted two surveys.

The first study examined the link between generic and specific chemotherapy-related conspiracy beliefs and their links with the intention to use conventional or alternative medicines. Participants were 291 French adults recruited through social media. They completed assessments of generic conspiracy beliefs (the Generic Conspiracy Belief Scale), chemotherapy-related conspiracy beliefs (created by authors), and intention to use conventional and complementary and alternative medicines (one item for each type of medicine).

The second study replicated the first one with certain changes in how conspiracy beliefs were assessed. Study authors divided conspiracy beliefs into upward and downwards conspiracy beliefs depending on the status of the group behind the conspiracy. Upward conspiracy beliefs are beliefs that organizers of the conspiracies are powerful groups (e.g. governments, big companies), while downward conspiracy beliefs attribute conspiracies to powerless groups (e.g. immigrants, LGBT+). Study participants were 346 French adults recruited through social media.

The results of the first study confirmed the authors’ expectation – there was a very strong association between generic conspiracy beliefs and conspiracy beliefs that were specifically about chemotherapy. Participants with more pronounced generic conspiracy beliefs and chemotherapy-specific conspiracy beliefs tended to declare lower intent to use conventional medicine and higher intent to use alternative medicine. They were also more prone to using complementary medicine, but this association was weaker.

The researchers tested a statistical model suggesting that generic conspiracy beliefs give rise to chemotherapy-specific conspiracy beliefs, which then influence the intentions to use conventional or alternative medicines. The results substantiated the feasibility of this model, confirming the interrelationships among these factors.

The results of the second study confirmed the results of the first. Upward and downward conspiracy beliefs had the same relationships with intention to use alternative and conventional treatments as generic conspiracy beliefs. However, the associations were weaker and the association between downward conspiracy beliefs and the intent to use conventional medicine was too weak to be generalized outside the study sample (was not statistically significant).

“This work shows promising results for the investigation of the links between generic conspiracy beliefs, chemotherapy-related conspiracy beliefs and the intention to use conventional medicine and/or complementary/alternative medicine in an oncology setting. It has shown that generic conspiracy beliefs were strongly related to chemotherapy-related conspiracy beliefs and that both were linked with the intention to use conventional medicine and/or complementary/alternative medicine in two vignette studies,” the study authors concluded.

The study sheds light on links between conspiracy beliefs and medication intentions. However, it should be noted that the design of these studies does not allow any cause-and-effect inferences to be drawn from the results. Additionally, the study survey asked about beliefs and behaviors related to cancer, while none of the survey participants suffered from cancer.

The paper, “Conspiracy beliefs and intention to use conventional, complementary and alternative medicines: Two vignette studies”, was authored by Valentyn Fournier and Florent Varet.

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