Psychologists from the universities of Kent and Staffordshire relied upon two studies to reach the conclusion that conspiracy theorists are more inclined participate in antisocial and ‘unethical’ acts, as their beliefs lead to political disengagement, rebellion, prejudice and self-entitlement.
In the first study, researchers asked 253 participants about their attitudes towards conspiracy theories such as terrorist acts being faked, Princess Diana being murdered by the British establishment and Barack Obama being born outside the United States.
The same participants were then asked how acceptable they considered small crime, which ranged from ‘unethical action’ to petty crime, such as trying to claim for replacement items, refunds or compensation from a shop when they were not entitled and theft. The team found a high positive correlation between the two.
In the second study, 120 people were asked the same questions about crime, but 50 per cent of the participants were given an article about a conspiracy theory to read during the experiment. The results suggested that those who read the article had a stronger inclination to engage in petty crime than those who did not.
Professor Karen Douglas of the Kent School of Psychology remarked that people who believe in conspiracy theories “are more likely to accept or engage in everyday criminal activity”, adding that research “demonstrates that people subscribing to the view that others have conspired might be more inclined toward unethical actions.”
She suggested conspiracy theorists were more inclined to take the view that if others are getting away with anti-social beliefs and conduct, they may as well do the same. This train of thought enables the rationalisation of petty criminal activity, especially that which is perceived as victimless.
Dr Dan Jolley of Staffordshire University stated: “People believing in conspiracy theories are more likely to be accepting of everyday crime, while exposure to theories increases a feeling of anomie, which in turn predicts increased future everyday crime intentions.”
Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?
The research further suggested that those with certain personality traits – especially the extremes of narcissism and low self-esteem – are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.
It also found that belief in conspiracy theories can fulfil a need for control, a desire for perceived intellectual superiority over others and a sense of belonging to an elite community. It sets them apart in their own minds from the ‘sheep’ in society.
Of particular concern, such people showed a disproportionate desire to participate in a larger social phenomenon, including sinister acts such as the death of a celebrity or even terrorist activity.
Censoring conspiracy theories
Earlier this year, YouTube claimed that it would stop recommending conspiracy videos which “misinform users in a harmful way,” including those promoting miracle cures for serious illnesses and making “blatantly false claims” about historic events like 9/11.
“We think this change strikes a balance between maintaining a platform for free speech and living up to our responsibility to users,” YouTube published.
Governments have also made attempt to stem the proliferation of conspiracy theories. For instance, controversial British conspiracy theorist David Icke was barred from spreading his ideas in Australia this year, when his visa was cancelled on character grounds. Icke’s views include that September 11 was an inside job, that the world is controlled by alien lizards and that Jews funded the Holocaust.
And a number of countries including Germany, France, Hungary and Austria have sent people to prison for denying the Holocaust.
Censorship can reinforce beliefs
However, the problem with censoring conspiracy theories is that it impedes free thought, free speech and can reinforce the views held by believers and push them underground.
It should also be noted that a number of conspiracy theories have proven to be true, including the CIA’s experiments with mind control under the program MKUltra, the deliberate distortion of an attack on the USS Maddox to justify expanding the Vietnam war, the strategy of infiltrating political organisations originally known as the FBI’s COINTELPRO program and even the ‘conspiracy’ that the United States and its allies fabricated a belief in weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion of countries such as Iraq.
That said, the findings of Kent and Staffordshire universities provide food for thought.