Heightened acceptance of hierarchy predicts heightened belief in certain types of conspiracy theories, according to new research in the British Journal of Psychology. The study suggests that cultural norms about the distribution of power are related to beliefs about foreign groups conspiring to harm one’s country.
“Conspiracy theories are found across times and cultures,” said study author Jan‐Willem van Prooijen, an associate professor of psychology at VU Amsterdam.
“Typically, conspiracy theories blame other groups for the problems that a society faces. However, little is known yet about the question how cultures may differ in conspiracy thinking. Such cultural effects seemed to me like an important possibility to examine.”
In two studies, which included 552 individuals from the United States and 540 individuals from China in total, the researchers surveyed participants regarding their conspiracy mentality, intergroup conspiracy beliefs, power distance values, vertical collectivism, collective narcissism, and perceived outgroup threat.
“The study asked US participants to what extent they believed Chinese institutions and companies are conspiring against the US, and Chinese participants to what extent they believed US institutions and companies are conspiring against China,” van Prooijen explained.
“Results showed that such conspiracy beliefs were higher in the Chinese sample. This appeared due to cultural differences in the extent to which citizens accept hierarchical relations in their society. When people accept group authorities they are more likely to prioritize group goals over personal goals, which increases conspiracy beliefs about a different group that they believe is threatening to their own group.”
In particular, Chinese participants were more likely to agree with statements such as “The secret agency of America has been trying to influence political decision‐making in China” and “The American government is secretly conspiring to harm China” than American participants were to agree with similar statements about the Chinese government.
Chinese participants were also more likely to agree with statements such as “There should be established ranks in society with everyone occupying their rightful place regardless of whether that place is high or low in ranking” and “I would sacrifice an activity that I enjoy very much if my family did not approve of it.”
“This is just a first step, and culture is very complex,” van Prooijen told PsyPost. “The United States and China differ in a lot of ways other than the tendency to accept hierarchy. It would therefore be useful to extend this investigation to a broader range of cultures, and to examine not only cultural dimensions but also a range of other, societal-level factors such as freedom of press, the level of democracy in a country, and so on.”
“This study not only illuminates the role of culture in conspiracy thinking, but also how conspiracy thinking is related to conflict between groups,” van Prooijen added. “This is also visible at other levels of analysis, within cultures (e.g., opposing political groups). Conspiracy theories may hence be a reason why conflict between groups emerges and perpetuates.”
The study, “The cultural dimension of intergroup conspiracy theories“, was authored by Jan‐Willem van Prooijen and Mengdi Song.