by Daniel Jolley, Karen Douglas, Ana Leite, and Tanya Schrader
We live in a complex world. To navigate this complexity, we often look to other people to decide what we should believe and how we should behave. But what happens if those “others” are perceived to be involved in shady plots and schemes? That is, what if we think they are engaged in conspiracies? Will we still rely on them to infer what sort of beliefs and behaviours are acceptable?
This question is important because conspiracy theories are popular. For example, around 60% of British people believe in at least one conspiracy theory. Well-known conspiracy theories blame governments, scientists, and many others for problems as diverse as terrorists acts, deaths of important people, plane crashes, and New Coke (which is not so new anymore). If we believe that other people do these sorts of things, this might alter our perceptions of social norms—what is expected from us—and signal that unethical behaviours are acceptable, particularly if those “others” are powerful groups with influence.
In our research, we set out to test this idea. Our first study showed that people who were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories were also more likely to report that they had engaged in everyday crimes such as trying to collect refunds or compensation from a store when they were not entitled to do so. Beliefs in conspiracy theories predicted everyday criminal behaviour, even when other predictors of criminal behaviour, such as personality traits reflecting people’s moral conscience, were taken into account.
In a second study, we tested whether reading about conspiracy theories increases the degree to which people accept everyday crime. Participants read an article about alleged government involvement in conspiracies, including the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Exposure to conspiracy theories increased people’s intentions to engage in everyday crime in the future. If the government is corrupt, why shouldn’t I be?
You can read the full post at Character and Context.