Belief in conspiracy theories may play a unique role in predicting everyday crime

People who believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to accept or engage in everyday criminal activity, according to new research published in the British Journal of Social Psychology.

“Conspiracy theories can affect people‚Äôs beliefs and behaviours in significant ways. For example, our previous work has shown that they can influence decisions on important issues such as climate change and vaccination,” explained study author Daniel Jolley, a senior lecturer in psychology at Northumbria University.

“It is plausible, however, that conspiracy beliefs may also alter our perceptions of social norms, and signal that unethical behaviours are acceptable. We sought to test this possibility.”

An initial survey of 253 individuals indicated that people who believed in conspiracy theories were more likely to report engaging in petty crimes such as paying cash in hand to avoid taxes.

A follow-up experiment with 120 individuals found that participants exposed to conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Princess Diana were more likely to intend to engage in everyday crime in the future.

The researchers found that exposure to the conspiracy theories reduced feelings of social cohesion, which in turn predicted increased future everyday crime intentions.

“Our research shows that belief in, and exposure to, conspiracy theories increased tendencies towards engaging in everyday crime, such as trying to collect refunds or compensation from a shop when they were not entitled to do so,” Jolley told PsyPost.

“Believing that others have conspired can give people license to engage in antisocial activities. Conspiracy theories may alter social norms that are linked to what is seen to be acceptable and appropriate.”

The researchers controlled for a number of psychological predictors of everyday crime, such as honesty and age. But the study is not without caveats.

“In the research, participants were asked about unethical behaviours, so they may not have been completely honest in their answers. We also relied on intentions, rather than measuring actual behaviour. Nonetheless, this research provides a strong basis that future research can explore,” Jolley said.

“Conspiracy theories can lead to inaction — such as reducing our intentions to engage with vaccinations — but this research showcases that in certain contexts, conspiracy theories can also lead to negative action.”

The study, “Belief in conspiracy theories and intentions to engage in everyday crime“, was authored by Daniel Jolley, Karen M. Douglas, Ana C. Leite, and Tanya Schrader.