Those who feel certain about what the future of the COVID-19 pandemic would entail are more likely to both ignore medical experts and to adhere to conspiracy theories, finds a new study by a team of psychology researchers. Its results also show those who were certain about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election were more likely to contend that it was rigged.
The study, which appears in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, centered on “future certainty”—or, confidence in how future events will unfold. The scientists, from New York University and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, examined beliefs in the future of COVID-19 as well as what the results of the 2020 presidential election would be.
“People sometimes feel certain about the future, but, as natural as this feeling of ‘future certainty’ is to many, our research finds that it may have serious consequences,” explains Irmak Olcaysoy Okten, a postdoctoral researcher in NYU’s Department of Psychology and the paper’s lead author. “In fact, certainty regarding the future of societal events is linked to disregarding the facts and even endangering others through antisocial behaviors.”
The researchers, who included Anton Gollwitzer, a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, and Gabriele Oettingen, a professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology, examined the sense of future certainty during the early stages of the pandemic in the U.S. and leading up to and after the 2020 Presidential Election.
The researchers’ conclusions were based on three survey studies conducted with U.S. residents using Prolific—an online research platform where individuals are compensated for completing short tasks.
In the first study, which took place early in the pandemic (April 2020), 300 participants were asked about the extent to which they felt certain about pandemic-related future outcomes, such as whether the pandemic will end soon or not. They also indicated their adherence to various reliable (medical experts) and unreliable sources (conspiracy theories). Finally, they completed a quiz testing their factual knowledge about the virus.
Participants with greater future certainty showed poorer information-seeking on all these measures. They reported avoiding information from medical experts and adhering to conspiracy theories and performed worse on the COVID-19 quiz, demonstrating lower levels of knowledge. Notably, these results held true for those with certainty focusing on a positive (“I know the pandemic will be over soon”) as well as a negative (“I know that it won’t be over soon”) future.
In a second study, conducted a few days before Thanksgiving in 2020, an additional 300 participants were asked the same future certainty questions. They also responded to questions about their engagement in preventive practices recommended by the CDC: physical distancing and mask-wearing. Those with higher future certainty were less likely to engage in these preventative actions at that point (i.e., before Thanksgiving) and continued to engage less during the holiday—as assessed one week later in a follow-up survey.
A third study analyzed the outcomes of future certainty pertaining to the 2020 presidential election. Two days before the election (Nov. 1), the researchers asked 1,000 U.S. voters how certain they were that their presidential candidate (Joe Biden or Donald Trump) would win. After Election Day, they assessed whether these same voters believed the election was rigged and endorsed violence; these beliefs were measured on Nov. 4, the day after Election Day, and one day after President Biden’s inauguration—Jan. 21, 2021.
The findings showed that before Biden was inaugurated those with higher certainty that their candidate would win were more likely to claim that the election was rigged and assert that they would endorse violence if their candidate lost.
After Inauguration Day, only the Trump voters who were certain (and whose certainty was disconfirmed by the election results) claimed that the election was rigged and endorsed violence by identifying with those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. By contrast, the less certainty Trump voters expressed in the election outcome prior to Election Day, the less likely they were to say the election was rigged, to endorse violence, or to express support for those who breached the Capitol on Jan. 6.
The researchers note that these results remained unaffected after statistically controlling for the level of support for Trump before the election—in other words, certainty about the outcome of the election emerged as a better predictor of endorsing violence than did support for the former president.
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Personality and Individual Differences
Method of Research
Subject of Research
When knowledge is blinding: The dangers of being certain about the future during uncertain societal events
Article Publication Date