People who believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to commit petty crime, according to new research by English psychologists.
The study, which was conducted by the universities of Kent and Staffordshire, showed that a belief in conspiracy theories—such as anti-vaccination and flat earth theories—may also actually make people more inclined to engage in everyday crime, like running a red light or avoiding taxes.
According to Professor Karen Douglas, one of the study’s lead researchers, the correlation between conspiracy and small crime in certain people can be attributed to a heightened sense of “anomie,” a general feeling of unrest or dissatisfaction that can lead to the belief that society as a whole is without morality.
“Anomie is the idea that people feel that there’s no social capital left, they don’t really like or trust people anymore... the feeling that something has been lost in society...” Douglas explained. “Being exposed to conspiracy theories makes people higher in this sense of anomie... if they think other people are doing these bad things, then why shouldn’t they?”
Study participants were given a list of about 15 statements explaining popular conspiracy theories and asked to rate how much they agreed with them. They were then asked how likely they were to commit certain petty crimes, such as taking a piece of clothing back to a store once they’d already worn it, or selling a car that they knew had something wrong with it.
The results showed a correlation between those who believed in many of the conspiracy theories and those who said they would, or had previously, committed these minor crimes.
The study builds on a flourishing field of conspiracy belief research, which has allowed scientists to construct a framework for what psychological factors may attract someone to fringe ideas.
This research shows that conspiracy theories seem to resonate with people trying to satisfy specific psychological needs. These needs fall into one or more categories: epistemic (the desire to be knowledgeable and accurate), existential (the desire feel secure and in control), and social (the desire to maintain a positive sense of self).
No one is immune to a conspiracy theory.
According to Douglas, there is evidence that all people find conspiracy theories appealing. “Everybody at some point will find a conspiracy theory appealing...” Doulgas said. “It’s a response to these human needs... everybody deep-down finds them appealing.”
According to Douglas, people who gravitate towards conspiracy theories may crave security—but they’re actually getting the opposite from them. Conspiracy theories actually appear to increase feelings of powerlessness and disillusionment, rather than making people feel better.
“Conspiracy theories are a counterproductive way of dealing with a situation that makes you feel uncertain or unhappy,” Douglas said.
The second half of the study exposed a control group of people to conspiracy theories in order to examine their feelings of disillusionment after, and their likelihood to engage in everyday crime in the future. The researchers found that a sense of disillusionment increased after exposure to conspiracy theories.
Previous research has uncovered a range of societal consequences attributed to conspiracy beliefs. These negative effects include political disengagement, prejudice, and environmental inaction.
Conspiracy theories claiming that the dangers of vaccines are being covered-up so that pharmaceutical companies can continue to make huge profits has led to a rise in parents opting out of vaccinating their children. In areas where this belief is high, such as Washington state, outbreaks of previously eradicated deadly diseases like measles have reemerged.
Less is understood about the psychological consequences of conspiracy beliefs.
The innately human desire for understanding and power that makes conspiracy theories attractive, also make them difficult to defuse.
“The main priorities are to understand the consequences and what to do about them,” Douglas said. “They are infiltrating politics... they are everywhere, and we still don’t know a great deal about them.”