New findings published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology indicate that economic inequality increases susceptibility to belief in conspiracy theories. The research provides evidence that the perception of societal breakdown is a key pathway between inequality and conspiracy beliefs.
“A lot of previous studies focused on individual characteristics of people believing in conspiracy theories. While I support the idea that there are individual differences in the tendency to believe in such theories, I wondered how societal features can have an impact on conspiracy beliefs,” explained study author Bruno Gabriel Salvador Casara (@BrunoGab92), an adjunct professor and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Padova.
“With my PhD supervisor, Prof. Caterina Suitner, we started to think about how economic inequality may represent one of the structural antecedents of conspiracy beliefs and developed the idea that conspiracy beliefs are used to psychologically cope with economic inequality. Then, I had the opportunity to work with Professor Jolanda Jetten at the University of Queensland. I am very grateful to them as they did not just provide fundamental technical and theoretical guidance, but also boost my interest in such topics.”
In a series of three initial studies, the researchers examined conspiracy belief scores from a 2018 study that collected data from 25 countries, conspiracy belief scores from a 2020 study that collected data from 18 countries, and conspiracy belief scores from the YouGov-Globalism Project 2020, which collected data from 20 countries. The researchers used Gini index estimates provided by the World Bank as their measure of economic inequality.
Although the three datasets used different measures of conspiracy beliefs, Salvador Casara and his colleagues found that greater economic inequality was consistently associated with greater endorsement of conspiracy beliefs at the country level.
In another study, 515 Australian citizens completed a task that assessed their perceptions of economic inequality. Participants were shown a table of five rows representing different wealth categories: “very poor,” “poor,” “average in wealth,” “wealthy,” and “very wealthy.” They were asked to estimate the number of people in each wealth category and wrote the number in a box at the end of each row, with the five estimates adding up to 100 people.
The participants then completed another task that assessed their general tendency to believe in conspiracy theories. They read a brief blurb noting that “some political and social events are debated,” such as the 9/11 attacks, the death of Lady Diana, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. “It is suggested that the ‘official version’ of these events could be an attempt to hide the truth to the public,” the blurb added. “This ‘official version’ could mask the fact that these events have been planned and secretly prepared by a covert alliance of powerful individuals or organizations (for example secret services or government).”
The participants were then asked the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with the statement “I think that the official version of the events given by the authorities very often hides the truth.”
The researchers found a positive relationship between perceived economic inequality and conspiracy beliefs. In other words, participants who perceived greater economic inequality in Australia were more likely to doubt “the official version of the events.”
The findings provided evidence that greater objective inequality and greater perceived inequality were both correlated with greater endorsement of conspiracy beliefs. But to determine whether inequality causes greater endorsement of conspiracy beliefs, Salvador Casara and his colleagues conducted a series of four experiments that manipulated the perception of inequality.
All four experiments, which included 543 individuals in total, found that participants who envisaged their life in a highly unequal society were more likely to endorse conspiracy beliefs, compared to those who envisaged their life in a more equal society.
The researchers also found evidence that anomie (meaning the perception that social systems have begun to fall apart) mediated the relationship between inequality and conspiracy beliefs. The findings indicated that “economic inequality prompts conspiracy beliefs because inequality enhances the perception that society is breaking down (both its leadership and its social fabric) and such increased anomie then triggers a search for meaning and control which conspiracy beliefs promise to provide,” the researchers explained.
“If we want to address the spreading of fake news and conspiracy theories, it is necessary to start to think about how our societies are creating suspicion, confusion, and conflicts among groups,” Salvador Casara told PsyPost. “Targeting individuals’ beliefs or debunking conspiratorial information may not be enough if the environment creating the need for believing in conspiracy theories is not changed.”
The findings shed new light on the proliferation of conspiracy beliefs. But Salvador Casara said that many factors related to conspiracy theories still need to be explored.
“Conspiracy beliefs are a psychological concept related mostly to the receivers of conspiracy theories, and previous research mostly focused on individuals holding conspiracy beliefs,” the researcher explained. “However, to fully understand the conspiracy-related phenomena, it is important to highlight the important aspects of the other actors involved in the communication process, including the senders, those that create and/or share conspiracy theories, and the messages, namely conspiracy theories, and the means of communication. I think it is fundamental that future research would focus on the interaction among these aspects.”
The study, “The Impact of Economic Inequality on Conspiracy Beliefs“, was authored by Bruno Gabriel Salvador Casara, Caterina Suitner, and Jolanda Jetten.