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Monday, September 19, 2022

The impact of economic inequality on conspiracy beliefs

Salvador Casara, B. G., Suitner, C., & Jetten, J.
(2022). Journal of Experimental Social 
Psychology, 98, 104245.


Previous literature highlights the crucial role of economic inequality in triggering a range of negative societal outcomes. However, the relationship between economic inequality and the proliferation of conspiracy beliefs remains unexplored. Here, we explore the endorsement of conspiracy beliefs as an outcome of objective country-level (Study 1a, 1b, 1c), perceived (Study 2), and manipulated economic inequality (Studies 3a, 3b, 4a, 4b). In the correlational studies, both objective and perceived economic inequality were associated with greater conspiracy beliefs. In the experiments, participants in the high (compared to the low) inequality condition were more likely to endorse conspiratorial narratives. This effect was fully mediated by anomie (Studies 3a, 3b) suggesting that inequality enhances the perception that society is breaking down (anomie), which in turn increases conspiratorial thinking, possibly in an attempt to regain some sense of order and control. Furthermore, the link between economic inequality and conspiracy beliefs was stronger when participants endorsed a conspiracy worldview (Studies 4a, 4b). Moreover, conspiracy beliefs mediated the effect of the economic inequality manipulation on willingness to engage in collective action aimed at addressing economic inequality. The results show that economic inequality and conspiracy beliefs go hand in hand: economic inequality can cause conspiratorial thinking and conspiracy beliefs can motivate collective action against economic inequality.

From the General Discussion

It is also important to consider whether economic inequality triggers the endorsement of general or more specific conspiracy beliefs. Data from Studies 3a and 3b showed that the manipulation of economic inequality affects the endorsement of a wide range of conspiracy beliefs— general conspiracy beliefs as well as conspiracies that relate to the specific fictional society. In Studies 4a and 4b, we found that inequality enhanced the belief in conspiracies perpetrated by different groups in the specific fictional society (i.e., politicians, scientists, multinational companies, and pharmaceutical industries) while it did not affect participants’ conspiracy worldview. Future research should focus on the impact of economic inequality on the endorsement of specific versus more general conspiracy theories. It may well be the case that the relation between economic inequality and conspiracy belief endorsement is stronger when participants consider specific conspiracy beliefs that blame an outgroup for heightened anomie that results from economic inequality. Such conspiracy beliefs best serve the function of mobilizing collective ingroup action that might hold the promise of providing people with a sense of collective agency (or control; see Bukowski et al., 2017).

These results have important implications. First, those who are prone to believe in conspiracy theories are sometimes viewed as driven by irrationality — a vision that is indeed supported by a vast literature about the negative consequences of conspiracy beliefs (e.g., Jolley & Douglas, 2014; Lewandowsky et al., 2013; Van der Linden, 2015). Other findings show that conspiracy beliefs are associated with dispositional constructs that are prodromal of mental disease, such as schizotypy and delusional thinking (Barron et al., 2018; Darwin et al., 2011). However, factors that trigger conspiracy beliefs are not always irrational and they may be driven by anomie-prompted socio-structural perceptions about societies, such as economic inequality.