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Conspiracy theories about COVID-19 have proliferated during the global pandemic, and their rapid spread among certain groups in the population has important implications for policy attitudes (e.g., motivation to engage in social distancing and willingness to vaccinate). Using survey data from two waves of a nationally representative, longitudinal study of life in lockdown in the UK (N = 1,406), we analyze the factors associated with belief in three theories related to COVID-19, namely that it 1) originated in a meat market in Wuhan, China, 2) was developed in a lab in Wuhan, China, and 3) is caused by 5G mobile networks. Using a dual-factor model, we test how cognitive ability and motivations affect susceptibility to misinformation. Our findings suggest that motivational and political dispositions, as well as the sources from which people derive COVID-19 related information, are strongly associated with belief in conspiracy theories about the virus, though these predictors vary among conspiracies. Belief in the Chinese lab conspiracy is associated with right-wing authoritarianism (RWA), social dominance orientation (SDO) and a preference for tabloid newspapers, while belief in the 5G network origin story is associated with social dominance orientation and a tendency to derive information on COVID-19 from social media. Moreover, we find that motivational factors like RWA and SDO have larger effect sizes than COVID-19 related anxiety, a desire for certainty, cognitive reasoning ability, or even general conspiracy ideation (in the case of 5G belief). These findings suggest that efforts to mitigate the potential damage caused by conspiracy theories, for example, by increasing education and awareness, may be inadequate because they miss a larger story, namely the role that politically motivated reasoning plays in making individuals susceptible to misinformation, and the propagation of conspiracies through networks and channels that reinforce these inaccurate worldviews.
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