Humans

There’s a troubling link between believing conspiracy theories and petty crime

People who believe in conspiracy theories might be more likely to engage in petty crime, and no, this is not a conspiracy.

A new study from researchers at the University of Kent and Staffordshire University in the UK has demonstrated a link between this type of thinking and how people feel about, uh, not acting entirely lawfully.

“Our research has shown for the first time the role that conspiracy theories can play in determining an individual’s attitude to everyday crime,” explains psychologist Karen Douglas, from the University of Kent.

“It demonstrates that people subscribing to the view that others have conspired might be more inclined toward unethical actions.”

That ‘everyday crime’ in this instance isn’t anything too crazy – stuff like running red lights, or avoiding paying taxes if you think you could get away with it.

The researchers conducted two studies, one that investigated the phenomenon in a cross-sectional way, and one that involved a controlled experiment to further elaborate on their initial findings.

In the first study, the team asked 253 people about their attitude towards conspiracies in general (‘that governments hide information from the public’), and whether they believed particular conspiracy theories (such as ‘Princess Diana was murdered by elements within the British establishment’).

They also asked questions about the likelihood of committing small crimes – say, trying to claim a refund or replacement that you weren’t actually entitled to.

And yes, they did find a link.

“As expected, belief in conspiracy theories was significantly positively correlated with everyday crime behaviours,” explained the researchers in their paper.

Of course, this doesn’t show that conspiracy beliefs are causing the petty crimes, just that the two are associated.

Next, the researchers took a step further and went online to find 120 additional participants to take part in an experiment.

These people were asked similar questions to the first study, but in the middle half of them were given a conspiracy theory article to read, while the controls were given nothing. Then the participants rated their belief in conspiracies and how likely they would be to commit petty crimes in the future.

“Being exposed to a conspiracy article (vs. control) influenced participants’ levels of intention to engage in everyday crime in the future,” the team notes in the study.

“Specifically, intentions to engage in everyday crime were significantly higher in the conspiracy condition than the control condition.”

The researchers think this might have to do with the way believing in conspiracy theories makes people feel.

This specifically pertains to a phenomenon called ‘anomie‘ – a belief system conflict which causes a breakdown between the community and individual. The team thinks that believing in a conspiracy theory might also shift your feelings about belonging in a society.

“This research highlights that everyday crime might be a flexible and dynamic response to the social context, and in particular to how social norms are perceived to be followed (or not) by powerful groups in society,” the researchers wrote.

“Engaging in everyday crime may be empowering for people who perceive that the world is full of conspiring powerful elites who ought to be challenged.”

It’s important to note that this is a small study, and the researchers caution this isn’t the only possible explanation for conspiracy believers’ occasional unlawful behaviour. Other factors, such as the personality traits of honesty or humility, could be better predictors of people’s compulsions towards everyday crime.

But it’s still an interesting study, and future research might give us another tool to help people with conspiratorial leanings.

“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,” explains psychologist Dan Jolley from Staffordshire University.

The research has been published in the British Journal of Social Psychology.

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