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Durham e-Theses
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Denial of the Mainstream Consensus: A Case-Based Complexity Approach

BOTHA, ANTON,IVAN (2024) Denial of the Mainstream Consensus: A Case-Based Complexity Approach. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.

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In the shadow of the recent pandemic, and with the spectre of the ever more serious effects of climate change looming, the denial of the scientific consensus on these issues continues to demand attention. Denial of climate change, pandemics, and vaccinations leads to increased collective risk to our interconnected global society. Using a case-based complexity approach, this thesis constructed and tested a multi-level theoretical framework that attempts to explain denial in a way that does not reduce this phenomenon down to ignorance, mendacity, or any other single psychological or sociological attribute. Rather it seeks to explore the largely non-obvious and unaware, complex interrelated processes and drivers that lead to this outcome.

At the psychological level, the theory asserts that our affectively-ladened motivated reasoning is the cognitive process chiefly responsible for our conclusions on issues of significant societal risk. In turn, our motivated reasoning is triggered by our epistemic and institutional trust relationships relative to the constellation of mainstream organisations leading the charge in researching, communicating, and driving policies related to these issues. The theory continues by positing that equifinality is likely at play, meaning that people may come to the same conclusions on these issues for different reasons. These differences stem primarily from variations in our psycho-social make-up and how these attributes interrelate. Specifically, this theory posits that differences in adult attachment orientations, personal values, and core beliefs, when interacting with our gender and cultural identities impacts our dispositional trust. It continues by illustrating how all these facets are richly interconnected to form different pathways to an outcome of denial.
To test this theory, data were collected on several scales measuring trust, attachment, values, beliefs, gender, and culture using an analytical cross-sectional survey design drawing on a quota sample of n= 1,199. This sample was roughly equally divided between respondents from the US, the UK, the Global North (less the US and UK), and the Global South with equal gender representations in each group.

The findings suggest that trust, in particular institutional trust, was a key determining factor in the support or rejection of the mainstream consensus and that this trust was in turn influenced by a host of factors contingent on variations in one’s psychological and sociological make-up. By employing case-based computational modelling, several distinct clusters were identified resulting in a set of three theoretical profiles distributed as follows: Accepters, (43%) Hesitants (36%), and Denialists (21%). Accepters by and large embraced the mainstream consensus on climate change, pandemics, and vaccinations as true, while for Denialists it was the opposite. Hesitants, however, largely accepted climate change as true but were more sceptical about pandemics and vaccinations. Accepters and Denialists were mainly found to be diametrically opposed to each other in terms of their mainstream institutional trust and their core beliefs. Hesitants on the other hand, while not as mistrusting of institutions as Denialists, had distinct epistemic trust and attachment patterns.

These profiles were then mapped over the demographic variables of regional grouping and gender allowing us to reverse engineer the unique sociological characteristics of each profile. The highest proportion of Denialists were found in the US amongst males (35%) and females (30%) while the lowest were found among UK females (11%) and Global North/South females (16%, 14%). However, Global South males and females (62%, 61%) made up the highest proportion of Hesitants.

The results of the study generally support our theory and the conclusion that denial is the result of a complex interplay of psychological and sociological influences, with neither one capturing sufficient nuance to paint a high enough resolution picture of what is occurring. However, by embracing case-based complexity as a research methodology we were able to more adequately capture this nuance so as not to fall prey to the limitations of more traditional positivistic approaches.

The thesis concludes with a set of recommendations which advises that mainstream institutions take note of the phenomenological and nuanced nature of the trust relationships they have with these different profiles. In essence, our findings suggest that most of the resources spent on combating misinformation and science education may be misspent and would be better allocated towards building broad-based institutional trust by reducing the anxiety of those in the Denialists and the Hesitants profiles.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Keywords:Denial, Climate Change Denial, Vaccine Denial, Pandemic Denial, Complexity, Complex Systems, Case-based Complexity, Climate Change, Vaccinations, Pandemics, COVID-19, Misinformation, Values, Beliefs, Attachment, Trust, Epistemic Trust, Motivated Reasoning, Neurobiology
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Social Sciences and Health > Applied Social Sciences, School of
Thesis Date:2024
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:07 Mar 2024 13:16

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