Thinking that the COVID-19 pandemic is in some way a hoax could serve as a 'gateway' for individuals to engage with more complex conspiracy theories, claim a team of researchers from Ohio State University in the US.

According to a recent analysis of two longitudinal studies that tracked participant beliefs in various theories, mistrust in expertise over real-world events can quickly bloom into a general acceptance of conspiracy theories that aren't supported by robust evidence.

The technical term here is conspiracist ideation, which measures someone's confidence in explanations of events that rely on the power of groups to manipulate outcomes to an unlikely, if not near impossible degree. For the study's purpose, the researchers considered conspiracy theories to be beliefs that aren't supported by any evidence – and which are actually contradicted by the evidence that does exist.

These can be anything from believing the Moon landing was staged to thinking that legitimate elections are rigged.

In the case of COVID-19, conspiracy theories include the idea that the pandemic was largely exaggerated by the government or the media, and the belief that the virus was released on purpose by a particular agency for sinister means.

"It's speculative, but it appears that once people adopt one conspiracy belief, it promotes distrust in institutions more generally – it could be government, science, the media, whatever," says psychologist Russell Fazio, from The Ohio State University.

"Once you start viewing events through that distrustful lens, it's very easy to adopt additional conspiracy theories."

Two different studies were the focus of the analysis. The first queried 107 participants about their beliefs in June 2020. In December of that year, a second study looked at how individuals who considered COVID-19 to be a hoax progressed in their conspiracist ideation.

Statistical analysis showed that those who believed the SARS-CoV-2 virus was deliberately released or that the severity of the COVID-19 outbreaks was exaggerated were also more likely to distrust the official results of the 2020 US election. What's more, members of the 'conspiracy minded' group also tended to show an increase in conspiratorial thinking between June and December.

The second study used publicly available data from 1,037 participants, surveyed between March 2020 and December 2020. Again, belief that the pandemic was a hoax predicted a rise in conspiracist ideation over the course of the year.

"If you read interviews or forums frequented by conspiracy theorists, you see a phenomenon where people tend to go down the rabbit hole after something happens in their life that triggers general interest in conspiracy theories," says psychologist Javier Granados Samayoa, from The Ohio State University.

"With COVID-19, there was this large event that people could not control, so how could they make sense of it? One way is by adhering to conspiracy theories."

There's still a lot we don't know about why people are attracted to conspiracy theories, and how those beliefs might change over time. Links have been made with personality type, but there are still plenty of unanswered questions.

And while these theories may seem like harmless hokum, that's not actually the case: the spread of conspiracist ideation is associated with an increased risk of violence, discrimination, and poor health choices.

This research suggests that financial hardship during the pandemic may have been one trigger for conspiratorial thinking – and identifying these triggers is going to be crucial in limiting the harm that these theories can do.

"These findings show that we need to be prepared for any additional large-scale events similar to COVID-19 to stem off conspiracist ideation because once people go down the rabbit hole, they may get stuck," says Granados Samayoa.

The research has been published in PLOS One.