Legitimacy and Ethics

Research statement by Dr. Jan-Willem van Prooijen

 Norms of justice and fairness have a major impact on how human beings evaluate societal events. These norms specifically determine people’s feelings and behaviors towards political and corporate leaders, peers, and a wide range of pressing societal issues such as immigration, climate change, health, and radicalization. Central in these processes are questions of legitimacy and ethics. Legitimacy refers to the broad issue what determines if people are willing to accept the authority of leaders. This depends on the extent to which people consider leaders to be trustworthy and fair decision-makers, and also involves the question of how people respond to leaders that they suspect to be illegitimate.  Relatedly, ethics refers to the broad issue of how people form judgments of, and make decisions related to, morally ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ behavior. This involves more specific questions such as what determines rule-breaking behavior (e.g., corruption), why people punish offenders, and how people’s moral convictions turn into extremist ideologies.

In my research I investigate the broader topic of legitimacy and ethics 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 (for instance) criminologists, political scientists, and organization scientists. 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) distrust and conspiracy theories, (2) unethical behavior, and (3) radical ideologies. These three pillars are interrelated and complementary issues that highlight different aspects of legitimacy and ethics.

(1)  Distrust and conspiracy theories

 The first thematic pillar is distrust and conspiracy theories, which examines the question of why many citizens have a deep-rooted distrust towards power holders, and often explicitly question their legitimacy. 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. (in press). Conspiracy theories: Evolved functions and psychological mechanisms. Perspectives on Psychological Science.

(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.