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May 18, 2022

How depression makes people vulnerable to misinformation

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A US study has found that people suffering from depression are much more likely to believe misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.

A bias towards negative thinking is fertile ground for antivax lobbyists.

For years, scientists have been trying to understand what makes a person prone to believing in dangerous conspiracy theories. It’s never been more important: as the pandemic bears on, misinformation is driving people to avoid potentially life-saving vaccines or treatments, and has cleft huge rifts in the fabric of society, alienating people from family, friends and community.

Now, a US study has found that people suffering from depression are much more likely to believe misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines. That means misinformation is most effective when targeted at vulnerable people – a common tactic used by conspiracy theorists and political subcultures.

The study, published in JAMA, surveyed more than 15,000 US adults across the nation’s 50 states. The researchers measured depressive symptoms against a person’s likelihood to agree with at least one of four false statements about COVID-19 vaccines.

They found that nearly 30 per cent of people with depression were prone to believing misinformation, compared with around 15 per cent of people without it. Respondents who believed at least one of the four misleading statements were also much less likely to be vaccinated. Finally, the team asked 2,809 of the survey respondents to answer a subsequent survey one to two months later; they found that people who reported depressive symptoms in the first survey were more likely to endorse misinformation months later.

Even when the results were adjusted for factors like political affiliation, socioeconomic status and self-reported ideology (a person’s individual set of beliefs), the connection stood up.

The results matter: if almost a third of all Americans with depression are vulnerable to vaccine misinformation, that means they’re more likely to resist vaccination and other public health advice, putting them at higher risk of serious illness and death. And mood disorders are already known to be associated with worse COVID-19 outcomes in hospital.

So, why does depression make a person more vulnerable to misinformation?

The researchers think it has to do with negativity bias. This is the tendency to focus more on negative information than positive information, an evolutionary quirk of our species that keeps us constantly aware of danger, and which would have served us well in the threat-laden plains of our evolutionary past.

But while negativity bias is present in all of us, individuals with major depressive symptoms often exhibit a more pronounced negativity bias, write the authors. This tendency to focus on the negative can make people cynical about the status quo, suspicious of authority, and ultimately cause them to underestimate – or simply not believe – the benefits of vaccinations.


This article was originally published on Cosmos Magazine and was written by Amalyah Hart. Amalyah Hart is a science journalist based in Melbourne.

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  1. So people who are depressed or have free floating anxiety are more likely to believe the non-stop fear porn on the television, and those who are calm and hopeful are more likely to believe it’s just a cold virus. Sounds about right.

    • The calm and hopeful believe there is an impenetrably coordinated international conspiracy to arrange for all the world’s most eminent scientists, the universities, research labs, the entire media, the WHO and just about every government in the world to lie to them, poison them, microchip them, depopulate them and to eventually bring us all under the heel of a despotic fascism. All so they can keep abusing and/or eating children. Yep that makes a lot of sense.

      Those with free floating anxiety have some faith in the dedication of the world’s top medicos to use the amazing advances of science to offer some hope that the world’s population will not be totally at the mercy of nature gone feral as have our ancestors in pandemics past. They also believe that with a bit of knowledge, cooperation and consideration for our fellow human beings there is much we can do to look after each other. Yep makes perfect sense.

      But Byron Shire being more depressed than other areas in the nation? I don’t doubt there is some validity in the findings outlined in this report but I don’t think it’s the only factor. There also seems to be a certain seduction in convincing people that they have superior insights and sensibilities than the general herd.

      • I listen to the arguments of all sides, take into account their cognitive biases,find all the logical fallacies, study the mechanics of the subject, and apply all the concepts forwarded to the model I’ve created from it.

        You just said your running on “believe” and “faith”

        I’ll take my critical thinking over your religious belief any day.

  2. Semantics! My use of “faith” and “belief” here are very different to their application in theological discussion. I think you will find Chris, that, not withstanding the absence of logical fallacies and cognitive biases, at the base of any theory or argument there will be an underpinning assumption.

    Delve a little into philosophy – it really makes you think.

  3. the idea that there is a conspriacy that includes all governments and health organizations across the world is laughable but it is still used to shut down any legitimate concerns about reactions to the pandemic, our societys and the systems that form and direct are reactionary machines and Australia has some of the most highly trained and hardworking cogs and wheels, they are faced with a problem and they react to it as best they can, the issue is the creation of a problem to get a predicted outcome, ie blowing up a nightclub in bali commited one part of the machine to 20 years of illegal warfare resulting in the loss of millions of lives
    the release of a virus of “questionable” origins that is still being investigated onto the world has put our machine into over drive and has been very profitable for some corporations and individuals.

    • I partly agree John. As I wrote, the seduction of these theories to many Byron Shirites is in the belief that they have superior insights and sensibilities to the general herd.


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