For better or worse (let’s go with worse) and for myriad, confusing reasons, all manners of conspiracy theories from the outlandish to the plausible have entered the popular discourse. While many of us are familiar with the types of societal and/or political effects this has caused in recent years, there are unknown, long-term consequences to believing that smelly old dude behind the grocery store in the tin foil hat is telling the truth about chemtrails or listening to those radio shows where the fat guy yells a lot. You know the one.
It turns out that aside from making you look foolish anywhere other than your favorite subreddit or Discord channel, belief in conspiracy theories may actually alter one’s attitudes about much more than what chemtrails are doing to frogs. According to a new study published by researchers from both the University of Kent and Staffordshire University, people who believe in conspiracy theories may be much more likely to commit petty crimes. Is there causation at work here, or merely correlation?
As always with studies like these, it’s tough to say. Human behavior remains a complex and mysterious phenomenon. Still, University of Kent psychologist Karen Douglas believes her study has found a clear link between belief in conspiracy theories and crime. Douglas and her colleagues surveyed over 250 individuals about their attitudes towards the concept of conspiracies in general, then asked participants to state whether they believe in specific conspiracy theories or not. Finally, the researchers asked participants about how likely each was to commit small, petty crimes like falsely claiming a refund.
According to Douglas, the survey found a definitive correlation between belief in conspiracies and criminal behavior. "Our research has shown for the first time the role that conspiracy theories can play in determining an individual's attitude to everyday crime,” Douglas stated in a press release. “It demonstrates that people subscribing to the view that others have conspired might be more inclined toward unethical actions." The study has been published in the British Journal of Social Psychology.
The same results were found in a later experiment in which half of the participants were tasked with reading a pro-conspiracy theory article; those participants who read the articles were much more likely to state they might commit crimes in the future. Researchers believe this correlation demonstrates that crime, like belief in conspiracy theories, stems from the uneven power dynamics at play in any society.
That is, both crime and conspiracy belief can be seen as a type of breakdown of trust or shared values between an individual and the society she finds herself in. When an individual no longer believes in the validity or truthfulness of government, then he may be much more likely to believe that Woody Harrelson’s dad killed JFK or steal a bag of BBQ Beef Hula Hoops from Tesco just to stick it to the Queen.
While many of us may scoff at these findings - after all, this was a single study with only a few hundred participants - several recent incidents in the United States suggest that the current viral spread of conspiracy belief may indeed be related to a willingness to commit crime - even violent ones. As always, I’m left to wonder: who would benefit from the rise in conspiracy belief and any hypothetical subsequent rise in crime? It’s not the public, I can assure you that. Understanding that there are complex, perhaps sinister motivations behind the proliferation of conspiracy theories is key to resisting the spread of misinformation.