The Dark Side of Human Beings

Research statement by Dr. Jan-Willem van Prooijen

 Human beings have an undeniable dark side. Throughout history, people have harmed each other through injustices, crime, and atrocities. Suspicion and unfounded beliefs have led to witch-hunts, persecution, and war. Extremist political and religious ideologies have stimulated intolerance, hatred, and conflict between large groups of people. The dark side of human beings still manifests itself frequently in modern societies, with substantial implications for how citizens think, feel, and act towards peers, political and corporate leaders, and in the context of a wide range of pressing societal issues such as immigration, populism, climate change, and health.

 In my research I investigate the dark side of human beings broadly defined, and the implications for society. Central in this line research is the question what micro-level psychological processes (e.g., cognitions, emotions, beliefs) are responsible for human choices that harm themselves, others, or society at large. For instance, why do people believe conspiracy theories, and what are the consequences of conspiracy beliefs for pressing societal issues such as vaccine refusal, climate change denialism, and populism? What are the psychological roots of corruption? What drives the desire to punish offenders after being confronted with norm violations? Why do people radicalize, and what are the consequences of extremist ideologies?

 I investigate these issues across a wide range of societal settings, and use multiple methods including large panel studies (both opt-in and representative samples), experiments, applied studies, longitudinal designs, surveys, and literature reviews. Furthermore, I take an explicitly interdisciplinary approach: While I am a psychologist by origin, I frequently collaborate with scholars from adjacent disciplines including criminology, political science, and the organization sciences. As such, the current line of research is at the interface of legal, political, organizational, and social psychology.      

 Below I will further illuminate my research through three thematic pillars, namely (1) conspiracy theories, (2) unethical behavior, and (3) radical ideologies. These three thematic pillars are interrelated, and highlight various aspects of the dark side of human beings.  

(1)  Conspiracy theories

The first thematic pillar is conspiracy theories, which examines the question of why many citizens have a deep-rooted distrust towards power holders and different societal groups. In fact, across the world surprisingly large numbers of citizens believe conspiracy theories about political and corporate leaders, assuming them to be involved in hostile plots that commit immoral or even criminal behavior. Conspiracy theories are defined as beliefs that a group of actors collude in secret with the purpose of attaining some malevolent goal. Conspiracy beliefs are not pathological, but instead are widespread among large groups of regular citizens. Conspiracy theories emerge in response to major political and societal events (e.g., the JFK assassination) but also in the micro-level setting of organizations (e.g., allegations that managers have a hidden agenda to serve their own self-interest at the expense of employees). Furthermore, people form conspiracy theories about political leaders, legitimate institutions (e.g., the legal system; secret service agencies), companies (e.g., the pharmaceutical industry), minority groups (e.g., Muslims) and so on. My research suggests that it would be a mistake to dismiss conspiracy theories as harmless entertainment, as such beliefs have a strong impact on citizens’ choices in many life domains including health (e.g., vaccination refusals), the environment (e.g., climate change denialism), politics (e.g., populist voting), and work (e.g., turnover intentions). 

 Key publications:

 Van Prooijen, J.-W. (2018). The psychology of conspiracy theories. Oxon, UK: Routledge.

 Van Prooijen, J.-W., & Acker, M. (2015). The influence of control on belief in conspiracy theories: Conceptual and applied extensions. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 29, 753-761.

 Van Prooijen, J.-W., & De Vries, R. E. (2016). Organizational conspiracy beliefs: Implications for leadership styles and employee outcomes. Journal of Business and Psychology, 31, 479-491.

 Van Prooijen, J.-W., & Van Vugt, M. (2018). Conspiracy theories: Evolved functions and psychological mechanisms. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13, 770-788.


(2)  Unethical behavior

 The second thematic pillar is unethical behavior, which examines both acts of, and responses to, norm violations. Corruption is a widespread global problem, yet little is known about the micro-level processes that make people engage in it. For instance, a common assumption is that corruption unfolds according to the “slippery-slope” metaphor where minor acts of selfishness gradually escalate into major forms of corruption. Our research suggests, however, that at least under some circumstances, corruption is most likely if a one-shot “golden opportunity” arises, suggesting that a “steep-cliff” metaphor is more suitable. Furthermore, when norm violations such as corruption are exposed, people typically feel a strong urge to punish the offenders, which raises complex dynamics that involve both feelings of justice and utilitarian considerations (e.g., deterrence). Punishment is a strong incentive to increase cooperation, but its success depends on the extent to which people believe the decision to punish was made fairly, and by a legitimate decision-maker. Finally, people regularly feel treated unfairly themselves in their encounters with decision-makers. In both legal and organizational settings, people strongly value authorities who try to uphold principles of procedural justice, for instance by allowing people to voice their opinion and by treating people consistently. Violations of procedural justice decrease the legitimacy of authorities, and increase the likelihood of conflict and protest behaviors.  


Key publications:

Köbis, N., Van Prooijen, J.-W., Righetti, F., & Van Lange, P. A. M. (2017). The road to bribery and corruption: Slippery slope or steep cliff? Psychological Science, 28, 297-306.

 Van Prooijen, J.-W. (2009). Procedural justice as autonomy regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 1166-1180.

 Van Prooijen, J.-W. (2018). The moral punishment instinct. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

 Van Prooijen, J.-W., & Van Lange, P. A. M. (Eds.) (2016). Cheating, corruption, and concealment: The roots of dishonesty. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


 (3)  Radical ideologies

 The third thematic pillar is radical ideologies, which examines how people’s ideological beliefs of what constitutes a “good society” can radicalize, turning into extremist beliefs that are intolerant of dissenting views. Radical ideologies are particularly likely to gain momentum in the aftermath of distressing societal events (e.g., economic crises; the 2016 refugee crisis), and provide people with a sense of meaning and purpose through a set of clear-cut convictions about society. As a consequence, however, religious and political extremism stimulates a strong sense of moral superiority, implying that different beliefs are considered as morally inferior. These processes have substantial implications for a wide range of legal, corporate, and other societal issues. For instance, people who endorse radical ideologies often think and act as if they were “above the law”, and in extreme cases even embrace violence as a justified means to reach their ideological goals. Furthermore, due to the clear-cut convictions that characterize ideological radicalization, extremist leaders tend to be overconfident decision-makers and believe in simple solutions for complex problems. Moreover, ideological extremism predicts feelings of distrust in legitimate leaders, experts, and institutions, which has implications for society such as EU skepticism, and a tendency to dismiss scientific evidence in decision-making.


Key publications:

 Ljujic, V., Van Prooijen, J.-W., & Weerman, F. (2017). Beyond the crime-terror nexus: Socio-economic status, violent crimes, and terrorism. Journal of Criminological Research, Policy, and Practice, 3, 158-172.

Van Prooijen, J.-W., & Krouwel, A. P. M. (in press). Psychological features of extreme political ideologies. Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Van Prooijen, J.-W., & Krouwel, A. P. M. (2017). Extreme political beliefs predict dogmatic intolerance. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 8, 292-300.

 Van Prooijen, J.-W., Krouwel, A. P. M., & Emmer, J. (2018). Ideological responses to the EU refugee crisis: The left, the right, and the extremes. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 9, 143-150.


 PhD students and other projects

 Together with various PhD students and other collaborators, currently I am working on a range of additional topics that all are related to the dark side of human beings. Current topics of PhD students include moral hypocrisy (with Mengchen Dong), the cultural dimension of corruption (with Meta Aurelia), superstition as a means of coping with losses (with Xiaoyue Tan), burglary behavior (with Iris van Sintemaartensdijk), and the psychology of hate (with Cristhian Martinez). Furthermore, together with political scientist Andre Krouwel (VU) and various Research Master students, I am currently developing a new line of research on the psychological processes underlying populist attitudes. Other current projects include topics such as international punishment (with political scientist Wolfgang Wagner, VU), the crime-terror nexus (with criminologist Frank Weerman, NSCR), forgiveness (with Peter Strelan, University of Adelaide), and leader legitimacy (with Andre Marques, University of Kent).