Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Dec 10, 2019

If Others Are Conspiring, Then Why Should I Be Well-Behaved?

by Daniel Jolley, Karen Douglas, Ana Leite, and Tanya Schrader
Man peeping over top of laptop

We live in a complex world. To navigate this complexity, we often look to other people to decide what we should believe and how we should behave. But what happens if those “others” are perceived to be involved in shady plots and schemes? That is, what if we think they are engaged in conspiracies? Will we still rely on them to infer what sort of beliefs and behaviours are acceptable?

This question is important because conspiracy theories are popular. For example, around 60% of British people believe in at least one conspiracy theory. Well-known conspiracy theories blame governments, scientists, and many others for problems as diverse as terrorists acts, deaths of important people, plane crashes, and New Coke (which is not so new anymore). If we believe that other people do these sorts of things, this might alter our perceptions of social norms—what is expected from us—and signal that unethical behaviours are acceptable, particularly if those “others” are powerful groups with influence.

In our research, we set out to test this idea. Our first study showed that people who were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories were also more likely to report that they had engaged in everyday crimes such as trying to collect refunds or compensation from a store when they were not entitled to do so. Beliefs in conspiracy theories predicted everyday criminal behaviour, even when other predictors of criminal behaviour, such as personality traits reflecting people’s moral conscience, were taken into account.

In a second study, we tested whether reading about conspiracy theories increases the degree to which people accept everyday crime. Participants read an article about alleged government involvement in conspiracies, including the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Exposure to conspiracy theories increased people’s intentions to engage in everyday crime in the future.  If the government is corrupt, why shouldn’t I be?

In this second study, we also explored factors that might explain the link between conspiracy theories and acceptance of everyday crime. We found that anomie—a feeling of lacking social cohesion—explained why reading about conspiracies increased the acceptability of crime.  Reading that others have conspired can increase people’s feelings of anomie, which then lead people to be more inclined toward unethical actions themselves. This finding suggests that conspiracy theories may increase unethical behaviour because they reduce people’s certainty about social norms that indicate what is acceptable and appropriate.

In these studies, participants were asked about unethical behaviours that are often against the law. Even though their responses were anonymous, participants may not have been completely honest in their answers. Moreover, because measuring unethical behaviour is challenging, we measured intentions to engage in crimes rather than actual behaviours. Even so, this research provides a strong first step that future research can explore.

Previous research has linked people’s beliefs in conspiracy beliefs to prejudice, social disengagement, and environmental inaction. Our research shows that belief in, and exposure to, conspiracy theories predicts an increased tendency toward everyday crime. Believing that others have conspired may give people license to engage in antisocial activities. Let’s just hope that simply learning about research on conspiracy theories does not have any negative effects. 

For Further Reading

Jolley, D. , Douglas, K. M., Leite, A. C. and Schrader, T. (2019), Belief in conspiracy theories and intentions to engage in everyday crime. British Journal of Social Psychology, 58, 534-549. doi:10.1111/bjso.12311


Dr. Daniel Jolley is a Senior Lecturer at Northumbria University. His research broadly explores the social psychological consequenes of conspiracy theories. 

Professor Karen Douglas is a Professor of Social Psychology at University of Kent. She studies the psychological factors associated with belief in conspiracy theories and some of the social, political, health, and environmental consequences of belief in conspiracy theories.

Dr. Ana Leite is an Assistant Professor at Durham University. Her research focuses on the psychological factors underlying the social inclusion and exclusion of humans and non-human animals.

Tanya Schrader is a second year PhD student at Staffordshire University.  Her work investigates how intergroup conspiracy theories may lead to the unfair treatment of people, with a focus on aggression and violence.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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