Feelings of social devaluation among African Americans’ linked to belief in conspiracy theories

New research has found that African Americans who believe that society values them less than others are more likely to believe in race-related conspiracy theories.

The study, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, indicates that African Americans’ beliefs in certian conspiracy theories are driven in part by a need to compensate for social devaluation.

“With a background in experimental social psychology, I learned early on in my training how certain groups in society are subject to prejudice and discrimination, and that much of this is systemic and institutionalized. Just after the Trayvon Martin shooting, then President Obama gave a speech that really moved me,” said study author James Davis, an assistant professor of psychology at Benedictine University.

“In particular Obama said: “‘There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.'”

“Of course my perspective is that of a straight white (privileged) male so this description of the African American experience is very different from my own, but it made me intensely curious about how these kinds of experiences may shape social cognition,” Davis told PsyPost.

“At the time, I was teaching at a predominantly African American university on the south side of Chicago and I had many conversations with my students about their experiences. Although there is an inherent awkwardness of being a white man teaching prejudice and discrimination to a room full of African American and Hispanic students, we had many amazing discussions that really helped shape my understanding.”

“For example, one student told me that when she is out shopping with her husband and child, people treat her much more positively (warmth, smiles, general friendliness) than when she and her child are out alone. Alone with her child she experienced much more disapproval from people (unfriendly posture/coldness), presumably because of stereotypes surrounding single Black mothers.”

The researchers examined data from 2,871 individuals who participated in the American National Election Studies, a nationally-representative survey of political attitudes and beliefs. They found that African Americans were much less likely than Whites to belief former President Barack Obama forged his birth certificate. But African Americans were more likely to believe that the government had purposefully flooded New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. African Americans were also more likely to believe that the U.S. government was secretly behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Davis and his colleagues then recruited 471 students from a one predominantly Black college and one predominantly White college. Some of the participants were randomly assigned to a social value affirmation condition, in which they wrote about a situation that had made them feel important and valuable to other people.

Overall, Black participants endorsed race-relevant conspiracy theories significantly more than Whites. But the social value affirmation exercise significantly reduced African Americans’ endorsement of these conspiracy theories.

Black participants who completed the social value affirmation exercise were less likely to endorse conspiracy theories like the belief that the U.S. government purposefully pumps drugs into poor neighborhoods, compared to Black participants who did not complete the social value affirmation exercise.

“I think the most striking result from this work is the effect of the social value manipulation. Having African Americans write about a time that they were valued by others decreased their hostile interpretations of ambiguous threats. In other words when members of disadvantaged groups are made to feel socially valued it makes them less likely to interpret negative behavior as intentional,” Davis told PsyPost.

“What’s especially cool about this pattern is that it replicates a similar pattern in three other studies, (Henry 2009; Kraus et al, 2011; and Davis, Wetherell & Henry, in press) suggesting that these are a real phenomena. At the end of the day, the takeaway is that the subtle differences in the ways that we as a society treat others can impact how they perceive the world and we’re only just now starting to develop an understanding of these processes.”

“Practically, I tell my students that I’m much more conscious of how my behavior can convey social value. I make an effort to treat those from marginalized groups or those in service positions with the utmost respect,” Davis said.

Social devaluation is just one factor among many that contribute to the belief in conspiracy theories. Even among those in the social affirmation condition, African American participants endorsed both race-related and race-neutral conspiracy theories more than Whites.

The researchers are also curious to see if social devaluation can help explain certain conspiracy theories among Whites.

“As with all research what we know is vastly outweighed by what we don’t know. One question that has been on my mind recently is how this process of social devaluation may be related to white nationalism, and their rhetoric of victimhood,” Davis said.

“Part of white privilege is a society where whites (particularly males) are inherently valued by society and from that perspective, increases in social equality may be perceived as threatening. In a forthcoming special issue of the European Journal of Social Psychology, we examine how social devaluation impacts endorsement of conspiracy theories.

“That paper focuses on endorsement of anti-African American conspiracies, but conspiracy theories are also predominant within the white nationalist ideology so I am very interested in how these psychological processes may operate in a similar fashion between these diametrically opposed groups,” Davis remarked.

The study, “Social Devaluation of African Americans and Race-Related Conspiracy Theories“, was authored by James Davis, Geoffrey Wetherell, and P.J. Henry.