Injustice, Conspiracy Beliefs, and Ideology

Human beings have a fundamental need to make sense of their social world. One of the mental tools that they have available for this is a moral framework, which helps them understand and evaluate the actions of others, and which serves as a guide for their own behavior. People’s sense of morality is at the core of many important themes within the social sciences, such as how people respond to injustice committed by others; the extent to which people behave ethically themselves; the extent to which they are suspicious of possible malevolent intent of others; and the political or religious ideologies that they endorse. Dr. van Prooijen’s research program is situated within this context, and focuses specifically on the three interrelated themes of injustice, conspiracy beliefs, and ideology: Why do people endorse punishment of others who break rules in organizations, institutions, or the society at large? Why do many people give in to the temptation of fraud, corruption, and embezzlement? Why are people often suspicious of the actions of powerful leaders, and believe in far-fetched conspiracy theories to make sense of societal events? What drives ideology, and why do people sometimes radicalize into extremist beliefs? Dr. van Prooijen investigates questions of this sort from a psychological angle, while maintaining collaborative links with scholars from adjacent disciplines in the social sciences, most notably criminology, organization sciences, and political science. In the following, the subthemes of injustice, conspiracy beliefs, and ideology are illuminated in more detail.


1. Injustice

 The first theme is rooted in the assumption that people may encounter injustice in their everyday life in three possible roles: As observer, as victim, or as perpetrator. People often learn about criminals and crime victims through the media or public discourse as independent observer. Furthermore, people sometimes are victimized themselves. Whereas people may not be crime victims that often in their lives, they are likely to experience injustice in a variety of quite mundane settings, such as when one feels treated unfairly by the supervisor at work, by the referee in a sports match, or in encounters with governmental authorities. Finally, more often than people realize, they commit injustice as perpetrator themselves, usually in the form of minor ethical transgressions—such as cheating, flexibly applying the rules in one’s favor, and accidentally “forgetting” sources of income when filling out tax forms. These three perspectives are all important for a complete understanding of the psychology of injustice.

When people are observers of injustice, they typically endorse actions that restore a sense of justice. Consequently, people feel the urge to punish the offender, and display a range of possible justice-based reactions towards the victim (e.g., victim compensation, but also victim blaming). One stream of research is designed to investigate such justice-restoring reactions, examining for instance how group membership of the offender influences people’s desire to punish (Van Prooijen, 2006; Van Prooijen & Coffeng, 2013; Van Prooijen & Lam, 2007), how punishment influences cooperation (Van Prooijen, Gallucci, & Toeset, 2008), how punishment motives relate to the motivation to compensate victims (Van Prooijen, 2010), and why people blame innocent victims for their fate (Van Prooijen & Van den Bos, 2009). Sometimes, however, people observe injustice as it unfolds in everyday life (e.g., a criminal emergency situation). A second stream of research, therefore, focuses on intervention behavior, relying on the classic bystander effect, and the related criminological construct of informal guardianship (Van Bommel, Van Prooijen, Elffers, & Van Lange, 2012; 2014).

When people are victims of injustice they display a plethora of negative emotional and behavioral reactions, including anger, fear, increased protest behaviors, and a decreased willingness to obey the rules. Dr. van Prooijen’s work on the victim’s perspective has a strong emphasis on procedural justice, notably the effects of voice: People feel treated more fairly following procedures that allow them an opportunity to voice an opinion as compared to procedures that deny them such an opportunity. One core insight that emerges from this line of research is that variations in procedural justice provide identity-relevant information, such as the extent one is valued and appreciated by others in formal or informal interpersonal relations (e.g., Van Prooijen, Van den Bos, & Wilke, 2002; 2004). Another core insight is that people have a strong egocentric bias when evaluating procedural justice, as they are particularly likely to label other’s actions as unfair when those actions happen to harm one’s own interests (Van Prooijen et al., 2008; Van Prooijen & Zwenk, 2009). Nevertheless, fairness judgments are not solely egocentric, as people can also be quite concerned about the extent to which others are treated fairly or unfairly (Van Prooijen, Stahl, Eek, & Van Lange, 2012; for an overview, see Van Prooijen, 2013).   

 If people resent injustice this much, then why is unethical behaviour still omnipresent in our society? If given the opportunity, most people cheat at least a little bit, to benefit their self-interest while still being able to justify one’s actions and perceive the self as a moral person. But many instances of corruption seem particularly hard to justify. Moreover, corruption often involves cooperation and coordination between at least two parties, such as in the form of a bribe. Together with two PhD students, Dr. van Prooijen currently works on the psychology of corruption, focusing on topics such as the slippery slope, norms, reputation, and culture. Furthermore, Dr. van Prooijen is involved in a virtual reality project on burglary behavior, in collaboration with criminologists from the NSCR. Finally, on short notice Dr. van Prooijen will start with a project on tax compliance.


 2. Conspiracy beliefs

 In everyday life, many people are downright suspicious of powerful leaders or authority figures such as politicians (e.g., 9-11 conspiracy beliefs), scientists (e.g., climate researchers, or researchers within the pharmaceutical industry), and corporate executives (e.g., allegations that managers conspire to pursue their self-interest at the expense of employees’ interests; but also conspiracy beliefs about for instance oil companies). Indeed, the number of people who believe in conspiracy theories in Western societies is much too large to dismiss such belief as pathological. The subtheme of conspiracy beliefs pertains to distrustful, sometimes even paranoid, responses of citizens in response to leaders’ actions. Such conspiracy beliefs are strongly related to the subtheme of injustice, but have a unique status as they pertain to the suspicion that illegitimate affairs are taking place on a broad scale.

Most often, belief in conspiracy theories constitutes a form of sense-making in response to the perception of societal threat. Indeed, whenever an impactful, uncertainty-eliciting event takes place—such as a terrorist strike, a natural disaster, or another event that causes suffering and a substantial number of casualties—conspiracy theories offering alternative explanations for the event will pop up rapidly, both on the internet and in public discourse. Whereas sometimes there may be a thin line with healthy criticism of the actions of leaders—which stimulates democratic debate and often improves decision-making—far-fetched conspiracy beliefs that assume legitimate leaders to be malevolent actors in an evil scheme to deceive the public tend to be harmful on many dimensions. Previous research has associated conspiracy beliefs with health problems, decreased civic virtue, withdrawal from politics, and radicalization.  

Dr. van Prooijen’s research on this subtheme focuses on the psychological underpinnings of belief in conspiracy theories. One core research theme is the relationship between conspiracy beliefs and threatening, uncertainty-eliciting societal events (Van Prooijen & Jostmann, 2013; Van Prooijen & Van Dijk, 2014). Another core research theme is the social dimension of belief in conspiracy theories (Van Prooijen & Van Lange, 2014), which refers to the insight that conspiracy beliefs are inspired by strong ties with the ingroup, along with a perception of threat embodied by a different group (e.g., nationalism). Finally, a core insight is that conspiracy beliefs are associated with extremist political beliefs, connecting the subtheme of conspiracy beliefs with the subtheme of ideology, described below. 


3. Ideology

 People’s ideologies are central aspects of their identities, and these ideologies are strongly intertwined with their judgments of right and wrong. Different political ideologies can lead to heated, emotional debates, and conflict. A core theme in political psychology research is the question how ideology predicts a plethora of emotions, perceptions, and beliefs, such as feelings of fear, stereotyping, and trust; and indeed, scholars have observed meaningful differences between adherents of the political left versus adherent of the political right in how they perceive the world. People can endorse such ideologies with different degrees of zeal and fanaticism, however. Indeed, the history of the 20th century has illuminated the potential dangers of radicalization, in the form of both left-wing extremism (e.g., socialism, communism) and right-wing extremism (e.g., fascism). Accordingly, there may be substantial commonalities in the underlying psychology of both left- and right-wing radicals.

How do the political extremes differ from political moderates? It has been noted that political extremism is characterized by a highly structured thinking style; that is, a form of black-and-white thinking in which social events, institutions, people, and groups, are dichotomously categorized as positive or negative, good or bad, and the like. Correspondingly, political extremists tend to perceive societal events with reduced integrative complexity, and are more likely than moderates to believe in simple solutions to societal problems. Furthermore, political extremists endorse their convictions with more fanaticism, zeal, and confidence, than moderates do.

To study the topic of ideology, Dr. van Prooijen has strong and ongoing collaboration with political scientists from VU University Amsterdam. One key insight that emerges from this line of research is that the political extremes are more likely than political moderates to believe in conspiracy theories—connecting the subtheme of ideology with the subtheme of conspiracy beliefs (Van Prooijen & Krouwel, 2015; Van Prooijen, Krouwel, & Pollet, 2015). Furthermore, a large-scale sample conducted in the Netherlands reveals that the political extremes experience more socio-economic fear, and are more prone to derogate outgroups, than political moderates (Van Prooijen, Krouwel, Boiten, & Eendebak, 2015). Current research focuses on the various ways that distinguish political extremists versus moderates. Besides extremism, Dr. van Prooijen has work in progress on the intrinsic value that people ascribe to democratic decision-making.