“I Heard That COVID-19 Was..”: Rumors, Pandemic, and Psychological Distance

K. Hazel Kwon, Kirstin Pellizzaro, Chun Shao, Monica Chadha

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

The spread of misinformation through a variety of communication channels has amplified society’s challenge to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. While existing studies have examined how misinformation spreads, few studies have examined the role of psychological distance in people’s mental processing of a rumor and their propensity to accept self-transformed narratives of the message. Based on an open-ended survey data collected in the U.S. (N = 621) during an early phase of the pandemic, the current study examines how psychological distance relates to the transformation and acceptance of conspiratorial narratives in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Two instances of misinformation are examined, both of which were widely heard at the time of data collection: the role of (a) Bill Gates and (b) government during the outbreak of the pandemic. This study uses topic modeling techniques to capture distinctive topical attributes that emerged from rumor narratives. In addition, statistical analyses estimate the psychological distance effects on the salience of topical attributes of a rumor story and an individual’s propensity to believe them. Findings reveal that psychological distance to the threats of COVID-19 influences how misinformation evolves through word-of-mouth, particularly in terms of who is responsible for the pandemic and why the world finds itself in the current situation. Psychological distance also explains why people accept the message to be true. Implications for misinformation and rumor psychology research, as well as avenues for future research, are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalAmerican Behavioral Scientist
DOIs
StateAccepted/In press - 2022
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • conspiracy theory
  • construal level theory
  • COVID-19 rumor
  • misinformation
  • psychological distance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Cultural Studies
  • Education
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Social Sciences(all)

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