0
We're unable to sign you in at this time. Please try again in a few minutes.
Retry
We were able to sign you in, but your subscription(s) could not be found. Please try again in a few minutes.
Retry
There may be a problem with your account. Please contact the AMA Service Center to resolve this issue.
Contact the AMA Service Center:
Telephone: 1 (800) 262-2350 or 1 (312) 670-7827  *   Email: subscriptions@jamanetwork.com
Error Message ......
Research Letter |

Medical Conspiracy Theories and Health Behaviors in the United States FREE

J. Eric Oliver, PhD1; Thomas Wood, MA1
[+] Author Affiliations
1Department of Political Science, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(5):817-818. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.190.
Text Size: A A A
Published online

Over the past 50 years, numerous conspiracy theories have materialized around public health matters such as water fluoridation, vaccines, cell phones, and alternative medicine. What remains unclear is whether the American public supports these conspiracy theories or whether they correlate with actual health behaviors.

To determine the extent of “medical conspiracism” in the American public, a nationally representative, online-survey sample of 1351 adults was collected in August and September of 2013 by Internet market research company YouGov. The survey results were then weighted to provide a representative sample of the population and have the same degree of accuracy as in-person or telephone surveys.1 This research was approved by the institutional review board of the University of Chicago. Respondents who took part in the survey gave their written consent.

Table 1 lists the proportions of Americans who report having heard of 6 popular medical conspiracy theories (the full wording is in the table) and their levels of agreement with each. Conspiracy theories about cancer cures, vaccines, and cell phones are familiar to at least half of the sample. These theories also enjoy relatively large levels of support: 37% of the sample agreed that the Food and Drug Administration is intentionally suppressing natural cures for cancer because of drug company pressure; 20% agreed either that corporations were preventing public health officials from releasing data linking cell phones to cancer or that physicians still want to vaccinate children even though they know such vaccines to be dangerous. Conspiracy theories about water fluoridation, genetically modified foods, and the link between the human immunodeficiency virus and the US Central Intelligence Agency were less well known: less than one-third of the sample said that they had heard of these conspiracy narratives and only 12% of respondents agreed with each. In sum, 49% of Americans agree with at least 1 medical conspiracy theory and 18% agree with 3 or more. These percentages are largely consistent with those found by surveys about political conspiracy theories.2

Table Graphic Jump LocationTable 1.  Americans Agreeing With Various Medical Conspiracy Theories, 2013a

These conspiracist beliefs, in turn, are correlated with a variety of health behaviors. Table 2 list the proportion of respondents engaging in various health activities by the number of medical conspiracies they believe in, either none, 1 or 2 (“low conspiracists”), or 3 or more (“high conspiracists”). The survey indicates that conspiracism correlates with greater use of alternative medicine and the avoidance of traditional medicine. High conspiracists were more likely to buy farm stand or organic foods and use herbal supplements; conversely, they were less likely to use sunscreen or get influenza shots or annual checkups. For example, whereas 20% of the total sample reported using herbal supplements, 35% of high conspiracists do. And whereas 45% of the total sample reported getting annual physical examinations, only 37% of the high conspiracists do. Subsequent multivariate analysis that controls for socioeconomic status, paranoia, and general social estrangement indicates that medical conspiracism remains a robust predictor of these health behaviors.

Table Graphic Jump LocationTable 2.  Reported Health Behaviors by Medical Conspiracism

Although it is common to disparage adherents of conspiracy theories as a delusional fringe of paranoid cranks, our data suggest that medical conspiracy theories are widely known, broadly endorsed, and highly predictive of many common health behaviors. Rather than viewing medical conspiracism as indicative of a psychopathological condition, we can recognize that most individuals who endorse these narratives are otherwise “normal” and that conspiracism arises from common attribution processes.2 Medical conspiracism may also be a diagnostic tool for health practitioners because conspiracists are less willing to follow traditional medical advice, such as using sunscreens or vaccines, and are more likely to use alternative treatments.

Corresponding Author: J. Eric Oliver, PhD, Department of Political Science, University of Chicago, 518 Pick Hall, 5828 S University Ave, Chicago, IL 60637 (eoliver@uchicago.edu).

Published Online: March 17, 2014. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.190.

Author Contributions: Dr Oliver had full access to all of the data in the study and takes responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis.

Study concept and design: Both authors.

Acquisition of data: Oliver.

Analysis and interpretation of data: Both authors.

Drafting of the manuscript: Oliver.

Critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content: Both authors.

Statistical analysis: Both authors.

Obtained funding: Oliver.

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.

Ansolabehere  S, Schaffner  BF. Does survey mode still matter? findings from a 2010 multi-mode comparison. Social Science Research Network website. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1868229. Published 2011. Accessed February 6, 2014.
Oliver  JE, Wood  T.  Conspiracy theories and the paranoid style(s) of mass opinion. Am J Pol Sci. In press.

Figures

Tables

Table Graphic Jump LocationTable 1.  Americans Agreeing With Various Medical Conspiracy Theories, 2013a
Table Graphic Jump LocationTable 2.  Reported Health Behaviors by Medical Conspiracism

References

Ansolabehere  S, Schaffner  BF. Does survey mode still matter? findings from a 2010 multi-mode comparison. Social Science Research Network website. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1868229. Published 2011. Accessed February 6, 2014.
Oliver  JE, Wood  T.  Conspiracy theories and the paranoid style(s) of mass opinion. Am J Pol Sci. In press.

Correspondence

CME
Also Meets CME requirements for:
Browse CME for all U.S. States
Accreditation Information
The American Medical Association is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education to provide continuing medical education for physicians. The AMA designates this journal-based CME activity for a maximum of 1 AMA PRA Category 1 CreditTM per course. Physicians should claim only the credit commensurate with the extent of their participation in the activity. Physicians who complete the CME course and score at least 80% correct on the quiz are eligible for AMA PRA Category 1 CreditTM.
Note: You must get at least of the answers correct to pass this quiz.
Please click the checkbox indicating that you have read the full article in order to submit your answers.
Your answers have been saved for later.
You have not filled in all the answers to complete this quiz
The following questions were not answered:
Sorry, you have unsuccessfully completed this CME quiz with a score of
The following questions were not answered correctly:
Commitment to Change (optional):
Indicate what change(s) you will implement in your practice, if any, based on this CME course.
Your quiz results:
The filled radio buttons indicate your responses. The preferred responses are highlighted
For CME Course: A Proposed Model for Initial Assessment and Management of Acute Heart Failure Syndromes
Indicate what changes(s) you will implement in your practice, if any, based on this CME course.
Submit a Comment

Multimedia

Some tools below are only available to our subscribers or users with an online account.

6,616 Views
5 Citations

Related Content

Customize your page view by dragging & repositioning the boxes below.

Articles Related By Topic
Related Collections
PubMed Articles
Jobs
×