People Who Believe in Conspiracy Theories Have a Troubling Link to Crime

Researchers discover a corrosive effect of the spread of conspiracy theories.

The world is already a wild place without conspiracy theories in the mix. With them, it’s straight-up chaos. Social psychologists from the UK show in a new study that people who believe in conspiracy theories have troubling attitudes about criminal behavior that could actually lead to more crime.

As belief in conspiracy theories becomes uncomfortably mainstream, its effects are becoming clearer to scientists. It erodes a person’s sense of reality and makes them suspicious of anyone different from them. It can also cause a sense of powerlessness, which in turn causes some people to disengage from the world, feeling like they have no power or agency. But the societal effects of conspiracy theories could be even more corrosive than previously suspected, as the new paper, published Tuesday in the British Journal of Social Psychology, suggests.

In the paper, the researchers details two studies illustrating the link between a belief in conspiracy theories and criminal behavior.

“Together, these findings extend existing research that has examined the consequences of conspiracy theories,” write the authors, led by Daniel Jolley, Ph.D., a psychology lecturer at Staffordshire University. “It demonstrates that conspiracy theories do not always lead to apathy and inaction. Instead, conspiracy theories might lead people to actively engage in anti-social behaviour.”

Alex Jones is famous for spreading conspiracy theories.
Alex Jones is famous for spreading conspiracy theories, some of which have led directly to real-world criminal activity.

Part 1: Conspiracy Beliefs and Criminal Behavior

The first survey, a cross-sectional study of 253 people in the UK, showed that people who believe in conspiracy also reported higher levels of real-world criminal behavior. These so-called “everyday” crimes include “running red lights, paying cash for items to avoid paying taxes, or failing to disclose faults in second-hand items for sale.”

In particular, the survey asked participants about their belief in general conspiracies (for example, “governments hide information from the public”) and specific ones (like “Princess Diana was murdered by elements within the British establishment”). It also measured personality traits known to predict criminal behavior, including humility, honesty, and moral identity. Finally, it asked about how much crime participants actually committed.

Both measures of belief in conspiracy theories were positively associated with everyday crime behaviors. In other words, people who reported that they believed in conspiracy theories were significantly more likely to have actual criminal histories. Additionally, positive personality traits like honesty and humility were negatively correlated with everyday criminal behaviors — perhaps offering a partial explanation for the relationship between conspiracy belief and crime.

“It is possible, therefore, that individuals who are pre-disposed to immoral behaviour find conspiracy theories more appealing,” the team writes. “On the other hand, conspiracy theories may inspire people to commit unethical acts as a route to cope with a world where conspiracies happen.”

Cognitive ability has to be paired with rational thinking to prevent conspiracy theories.

Part 2: Conspiracy Theories Cause Disillusionment

The second study took a more active experimental approach to examine the link between a belief in conspiracies and a tendency toward criminal behavior. Rather than asking people to report their criminal histories, the researchers asked some of their 120 participants to read an article about conspiracy theories. The control group, in contrast, didn’t read anything. Here’s an excerpt from the one of the articles:

…To take the example of Princess Diana’s death, it is no secret that the British government were discontented with Princess Diana’s involvement with Dodi Fayed and also with her increasing involvement in politics…. One must, therefore, question the claim that her death was simply a tragic accident…

Crucially, the excerpt did not include the term “conspiracy theory.”

Afterward, participants reported on their own levels of anomie — social instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values — and disillusionment, as well as their willingness to engage in everyday crimes. The people who read the conspiracy article were significantly more likely to report that they were interested in doing crimes, suggesting that the effect measured in Study 1 wasn’t a coincidence. Perhaps, they propose, there is a causal link: Conspiracy theories make people feel more anomie and generally less bound by positive social traits, translating to a higher willingness to engage in everyday crimes.

Why Conspiracies Are More Dangerous Than Ever

The data from these two studies, the team argues, provides crucial insight into the psychological relationship between conspiracy theories and crime. The same factors that might lead someone to believe in conspiracy theories, they say, could also become more severe as a result of that belief.

“Specifically, exposure to conspiracy theories was associated with increased feelings of anomie, which in turn were associated with stronger intentions to engage in everyday crime,” they write. “This is consistent with recent theorizing suggesting that social factors, such as alienation and anomie, may not only be psychological antecedents of belief in conspiracy theories, but they might also be exacerbated by exposure to conspiracy theories.”

Abstract: Belief in conspiracy theories is associated with negative outcomes such as political disengagement, prejudice, and environmental inaction. The current studies — one cross-sectional (N = 253) and one experimental (N = 120) — tested the hypothesis that belief in conspiracy theories would increase intentions to engage in everyday crime. Study 1 demonstrated that belief in conspiracy theories predicted everyday crime behaviours when controlling for other known predictors of everyday crime (e.g., Honesty–Humility). Study 2 demonstrated that exposure to conspiracy theories (vs. control) increased intentions to engage in everyday crime in the future, through an increased feeling of anomie. The perception that others have conspired may therefore in some contexts lead to negative action rather than inaction.