High Threat Perception and Obtaining News From Social Media Correlated With Conspiracy Beliefs About COVID-19

This study investigated how threat perceptions relate to learning, believing in conspiracy claims, and conspiracy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

High levels of threat perception in situations with informational uncertainty impeded societal learning and fostered conspiracy beliefs. These findings, from a panel study of perceptions about COVID-19, were published in Personality and Individual Differences.

Data for this study were collected by a private market research company, Dynata, which surveyed individuals living in Austria during 2 waves on knowledge and threat perceptions about COVID-19. Individuals were surveyed for wave 1 during the first week in April of 2020 (N=1024) at which time infection rates were peaking in Austria. During the first week in June of 2020 when the infection rate was greatly reduced and regulations loosened, 769 of the previously surveyed individuals were reassessed.

Participants who completed both surveys were 320 women and 312 men aged mean 49.30 (range, 18-87) years who had completed vocational school (n=305), attended college (n=104), attended high school (n=115), or completed only compulsory schooling (n=105).

Participant answers indicated knowledge about COVID-19 was negatively correlated with male gender (b, -0.28; P <.01), high threat perceptions (b, -0.13; P <.05), and getting news via social media (b, -0.08; P <.05) and positively correlated with attending college (b, 0.52; P <.001), attending high school (b, 0.44; P <.01), seeking out news (b, 0.13; P <.001), watching public television (b, 0.09; P <.05), and age (b, 0.01; P <.001).

Conspiracy thinking was negatively associated with attending college (b, -0.32; P <.01), attending high school (b, -0.29; P <.01), watching public television (b, -0.12; P <.001), seeking out news (b, -0.08; P <.01), and reading the newspaper (b, -0.07; P <.01) and positively correlated with high threat perceptions (b, 0.41; P <.001) and getting news via social media (b, 0.12; P <.001).

Belief in conspiracy claims was negatively associated with attending high school (b, -0.19; P <.001), knowledge about COVID-19 (b, -0.07; P <.001), watching public television (b, -0.05; P <.01), seeking out news (b, -0.03; P <.05), reading the newspaper (b, -0.03; P <.05), and getting news via the internet (b, -0.03; P <.05) and positively associated with high threat perceptions (b, 0.16; P <.001) and getting news via social media (b, 0.07; P <.001).

During the second wave, participants were more likely to believe in conspiracy claims if they had high threat perceptions of COVID-19 (b, 0.05; P <.01) and less likely if they watched public television (b, -0.03; P <.05).

The results of this study may not be generalizable across other populations and may be influenced by some aspect of culture unique to Austria.

These findings suggested that individuals with high threat perceptions and reduced knowledge about COVID-19 were more likely to use conspiracy thinking and believe conspiracy claims. These conspiracy claims may be fostered through spread of news on social media.


Heiss R, Gell S, Röthlingshöfer E, Zoller C. How threat perceptions relate to learning and conspiracy beliefs about COVID-19: Evidence from a panel study. Pers Individ Dif. 2021;110672. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2021.110672