[Proposal] The link between economic inequality and belief in conspiracy theories

The link between economic inequality and belief in conspiracy theories.

1. Background

Socio-economic inequality has been growing in the past decades, and according to some accounts is higher than ever1, exacerbating the risks of divisions and political unrest2. Against this backdrop, people around the world have been frequently encountering distressing and threatening events, such as financial and political crises that propagate uncertainty and fear among the people, inducing feelings of political powerlessness and a sense to lack control over their lives.

As a response to this highly unpredictable and fragile environment, citizens may resort to conspiracy theories that reduce the complexity of social and political phenomena to simple, deterministic explanations3. A conspiracy theory is a "proposed explanation of some historical event (or events) in terms of the significant causal agency of a relatively small group of persons, the conspirators acting in secret"4. Believing in such theories appears to assert some kind of power over the world one lives in5 and may restore their sense of control 6. At the same time, conspiracy beliefs often reflect a deep suspicion towards legitimate democratic institutions, and are empirically associated with low institutional trust7 and high political cynicism8

Although it has been argued that recent movements of populism and conspiracism are owing to inequality and economic deprivation9 empirical supporting evidence for this assumption remains scarce. For example, populist political outcomes (like BREXIT or the 2016 election of Donald Trump) are not necessarily predicted by low socio-economic indicators10.

In this project, we try to solve this conundrum by empirically testing the link between economic inequality (perceived or actual) and conspiracy beliefs. One mechanism that may link inequality to individual-level conspiracy beliefs is people’s perceptions of their status relative to others. This theory, also known as relative deprivation theory, argues that people’s beliefs about their relative status matter more than their objective circumstances when predicting how they will respond to inequality11. Thus, the experience of relative deprivation forms a likely bridge between people’s objective circumstances and their responses to inequality12 and may explain previous failures to identified possible links between inequality and extreme socio-political outcomes such as conspiracy beliefs and populism.


Unlike past research and theorizing on these topics, in this study we will, thus, distinguish between objective (regional) inequality, perceived inequality (how unequal society is) and feelings of relative deprivation (i.e., how deprived one feels compared to others). We expect that perceived inequality and relative deprivation would most strongly predict conspiracy beliefs, compared to objective regional inequality. We also expect these relationships to be mediated by feelings of political powerlessness and cynicism (i.e., a considerable lack of trust in politicians and institutions).

By distinguishing between objective and subjective measures of inequality, this study is expected to solve an unsettled debate on whether low socio-economic indicators may predict political extremism and will help us understand the problem of conspiracy theories and potential remedies.

2. Methods & Material

To test these predictions, we will administer a questionnaire that assesses perceptions of inequality, relative deprivation, participants’ tendency to endorse conspiracy theories and belief in specific conspiracy theories, alongside levels of political cynicism and feelings of powerlessness:

Perceived inequality will be measured with previously employed measures13.

Relative deprivation will be measured using a previously developed scale14.

Conspiracy mentality . The 5-item conspiracy mindset questionnaire15 will be completed.

Specific conspiracy beliefs . A 7-item specific conspiracist beliefs scale16 will be completed.

Political cynicism. A 6-item political cynicism questionnaire16 will be completed.

Political powerlessness. A 7-item political powerlessness questionnaire16 will be completed.

Demographic questions. At the end of the survey questions about participants’ household income, gender, age and region will be asked.

We will also calculate an index of regional inequality (i.e. the distribution of income within a defined area18) using the 2021 UK census data.

Sample size and selection

The sample will consist in a representative UK sample (N = 3,900). Given the difficulty of estimating power in nested data we follow recommendations and opt for the largest possible sample17 given the budget.

The study is expected to last for 15 minutes on average. Participants will be compensated with £1.88 (equivalent of £7.50/hour) which amounts to a total of £9,860.


The study is preregistered at https://aspredicted.org/~gdYlgawQH3 .

The pre-print version of the paper will be freely available on https://psyarxiv.com/.


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  10. Antonucci, L., Horvath, L. & Krouwel, A. Brexit was not the voice of the working class nor of the uneducated – it was of the squeezed middle . (2017).

  11. Walker, I. & Pettigrew, T. F. Relative deprivation theory: An overview and conceptual critique. Br. J. Soc. Psychol. 23 , 301–310 (1984).

  12. Smith, H. J., Pettigrew, T. F., Pippin, G. M. & Bialosiewicz, S. Relative Deprivation: A Theoretical and Meta-Analytic Review. Personal. Soc. Psychol. Rev. 16 , 203–232 (2012).

  13. Knell, M. & Stix, H. Perceptions of inequality. Eur. J. Polit. Econ. 65 , 101927 (2020).

  14. Callan, M. J., Ellard, J. H., Will Shead, N. & Hodgins, D. C. Gambling as a search for justice: Examining the role of personal relative deprivation in gambling urges and gambling behavior. Personal. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 34 , 1514–1529 (2008).

  15. Bruder, M., Haffke, P., Neave, N., Nouripanah, N. & Imhoff, R. Measuring Individual Differences in Generic Beliefs in Conspiracy Theories Across Cultures: Conspiracy Mentality Questionnaire. Front. Psychol. 4 , (2013).

  16. Pantazi, M., Papaioannou, K. & van Prooijen, J.-W. Power to the People: the Hidden Link Between Support for Direct Democracy and Belief in Conspiracy Theories. Polit. Psychol.

  17. B. Snijders, T. A. Power and Sample Size in Multilevel Linear Models. in Encyclopedia of Statistics in Behavioral Science (eds. Everitt, B. S. & Howell, D. C.) 3 , 1570–1573 (Willey, 2005).

  18. Osborne, D., Sibley, C. G., & Sengupta, N. K. (2015). Income and neighbourhood‐level inequality predict self‐esteem and ethnic identity centrality through individual‐and group‐based relative deprivation: A multilevel path analysis . European Journal of Social Psychology , 45(3), 368-377.