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Blaming a Few Bad Apples to Save a Threatened Barrel: The System‐Justifying Function of Conspiracy Theories

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This research demonstrates that conspiracy theories—often represented as subversive alternatives to establishment narratives—may bolster, rather than undermine, support for the social status quo when its legitimacy is under threat. A pilot study (N = 98) found a positive relationship between conspiracy belief and satisfaction with the status quo. In Study 1 (N = 120), threatening (vs. affirming) the status quo in British society caused participants to endorse conspiracy theories. In Study 2 (N = 159), exposure to conspiracy theories increased satisfaction with the British social system after this had been experimentally threatened. In Study 3 (N = 109), this effect was mediated by the tendency for participants exposed (vs. not exposed) to conspiracy theories to attribute societal problems relatively more strongly to small groups of people rather than systemic causes. By blaming tragedies, disasters, and social problems on the actions of a malign few, conspiracy theories can divert attention from the inherent limitations of social systems.
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Keywords: beliefs; conspiracy theories; system justification; system threat

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: April 1, 2018

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