Suthaharan, P., Reed, E., et al.
(2020, September 4).
The 2019 coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has made the world seem unpredictable. During such crises we can experience concerns that others might be against us, culminating perhaps in paranoid conspiracy theories. Here, we investigate paranoia and belief updating in an online sample (N=1,010) in the United States of America (U.S.A). We demonstrate the pandemic increased individuals’ self-rated paranoia and rendered their task-based belief updating more erratic. Local lockdown and reopening policies, as well as culture more broadly, markedly influenced participants’ belief-updating: an early and sustained lockdown rendered people’s belief updating less capricious. Masks are clearly an effective public health measure against COVID-19. However, state-mandated mask wearing increased paranoia and induced more erratic behaviour. Remarkably, this was most evident in those states where adherence to mask wearing rules was poor but where rule following is typically more common. This paranoia may explain the lack of compliance with this simple and effective countermeasure. Computational analyses of participant behaviour suggested that people with higher paranoia expected the task to be more unstable, but at the same time predicted more rewards. In a follow-up study we found people who were more paranoid endorsed conspiracies about mask-wearing and potential vaccines – again, mask attitude and conspiratorial beliefs were associated with erratic task behaviour and changed priors. Future public health responses to the pandemic might leverage these observations, mollifying paranoia and increasing adherence by tempering people’s expectations of other’s behaviour, and the environment more broadly, and reinforcing compliance.