Unfairness fosters conspiracy thinking

Surely it can be no coincidence that Novak Djokovic, one of the world’s leading tennis players, was – temporarily – banned from Australia because of his unvaccinated status (and apparent vaccine scepticism) on the first anniversary of the Capitol Insurrection in the US, which was founded on dual conspiracy theories about a supposedly stolen Presidential election and a dominant cabal in the nation? According to some theories, both events also happened to occur the day after the point at which control was to be asserted over all vaccinated people, turning them into zombies. This too is surely no coincidence?

The world is flooded with conspiracy theories. So much so that it is not hard to believe that some might imagine a conspiratorial connection behind these random coincidences. Though many will blame social media, where the algorithm is the echo chamber, there are other foundations for this confusion. A crucial basis for conspiracy theories turns out to be that they thrive because of the extent of our current unfairness. That’s the clear conclusion of a recent paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. In the context of a global pandemic, some of those conspiracy theories are proving lethal.

The academic paper reports a series of studies that identify a strong coincidence between heightened levels of inequality – unfairness – and higher propensities to believe conspiracy theories. It then goes on to demonstrate causation as well as correlation. The researchers’ initial study reveals a reasonably strong correlation between inequality in countries, as measured by the Gini coefficient, and the population of that nation’s propensity to believe conspiracy theories. In a study of more than 500 Australians, the researchers furthermore identify a heightened tendency to believe conspiracy theories among those who perceive their country to be more unequal than among those who see greater fairness, concluding: “the perception of economic inequality … is positively associated with conspiracy beliefs”. This finding is reinforced by further studies on perceived inequality and its impact on conspiracy beliefs.

Overall, these results reflect and reinforce an earlier finding by a UK academic, Hugo Drochon (now at the University of Nottingham), based on a series of YouGov surveys:

“So countries in which inequality is higher and democracy is considered not to be functioning as well as it should – that is, where citizens feel excluded politically and economically – will exhibit higher levels of conspiracy thinking.”

This perhaps should not be surprising. As the world does not conform to our fundamental understandings of how it should work – among other things, our basic assumptions that fairness should prevail, that hard work should pay off, and that merit should be recognised and rewarded – people seek to find reasons for that disconcerting, upsetting reality. These are ideas that have been baked into the human psyche for millennia, so setting them aside is confusing and difficult to resolve. The researchers call this anomie, a sense that the world does not make sense.

Using conspiracy theories as a way of navigating this confusion has real world consequences. The proliferation of conspiracies around vaccines are particularly damaging to health outcomes, both communal and individual. In many ways, the whole pandemic has proven a massive experiment in social norms – the waning and waxing of mask use on the London underground being one insight into how people’s actions clearly influence each other. But the erosion of a willingness to respond to such social pressures, for example through the increasing willingness to challenge others who do wear masks, is a strong sign of growing frustration with others’ views, and growing inflexibility. In the context of a pandemic, the consequences of certain conspiracy theories can be lethal. It is another deadly consequence of unfairness.

The scale of that lethality is potentially indicated in this chart. This is from the vigorous team at Inequality.org (part of the US’s Institute for Policy Studies) and it deliberately tells a powerful story, expressed in its blunt headline. It is clearly a dated snapshot, and is rather selective in its tendency to focus on North America and Europe, but the story it tells seems unlikely to be undermined by any update of the numbers, or cumulative deaths analysis, nor by the inclusion of some of the more obvious omissions (for example, China, India, Japan, South Africa and the UK).


But to try to address the question of vaccine hesitancy and inequality more directly, I have created the following chart based on publicly available numbers. It maps aggregated unwillingness and uncertainty to take vaccines (from Our World in Data, latest available for each country) against the Gini coefficient (from World Bank, again latest, where available). By eye it is certainly suggestive that there is some association between greater inequality and higher vaccine hesitancy, but to be fair that is largely down to the single outlier – the US, with a Gini over 0.4 and with more than 30% of its population hesitant about vaccination.

The simple fact is that there are too few countries where the World in Data is able to calculate vaccine hesitancy (given the unfairness of vaccine distribution globally, it really only makes sense to calculate hesitancy in developed economies and this dataset includes only 15 countries), and given these have clustered Gini coefficients, there is little that can be clearly concluded from the data. That is, other than it is notable that none of these nations – even the most equal and fair – has succeeded in convincing more than 85% of their populations that vaccination in the face of a dangerous virus is a good thing.

While unfairness fosters them, conspiracy theories are not attractive only for those disadvantaged by society. Djokavic’s vaccine scepticism shows that even the most successful can find them seductive – and I’m sure many of us know extremely smart people who are attracted to at least some of these theories.

It’s not helped by a culture that fuels this thinking. Not least, the tendency to conspiracy thinking is seen by some politicians as an opportunity. Populists seek to foster hatred and anger as a political tool. Rather than seeking to address the underlying causes of that anger, the populist believes that he or she can win greater support by fanning its flames. Often these days, that means encouraging conspiratorial thought. The alternative approach – and the one that this blogger would favour – would be to seek to address the underlying unfairness that helps fuel the conspiracy thinking and sparks the anger.

If only we could use the frustrations evident in among the conspiracy theorists and use it to address and change unfairness, rather than see this energy being dissipated in what seem daft ideas on such things as zombie-causing vaccines and cannibalistic cabals. Unfortunately, the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology study showed that a greater belief in conspiracy theories only leads to a narrow encouragement towards actions to address inequality, as if conspiracy thinking ensures that the energy arising from unfairness is dissipated in other ways.

The world does need change. It needs to be more fair. But being drawn into conspiracy theories saps the energy from addressing this core issue. In contrast, addressing unfairness could free people from the unhappiness that leads them into some very peculiar conspiracy beliefs – and in the context of the global pandemic has the direct opportunity to save lives through encouraging more pro-social behaviour.

“Our results suggest that the building of more equal societies is one way in which we can tackle the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories,” the researchers conclude, and so will this blogpost.

See also: The missing actions on vaccine fairness

The impact of economic inequality on conspiracy beliefs, Bruno Gabriel Salvador Casara, Caterina Suitner, Jolanda Jetten, January 2022, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 98(4)

Who believes in conspiracy theories in Great Britain and Europe? Hugo Drochon in Joseph Uscinski (ed), Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe them, 2018, Oxford University Press


Willingness to get vaccinated against COVID-19, Dec 15 2021, Our World in Data

World Bank Gini coefficient estimates

To combat conspiracy theories, fight social decay and inequality, Edward Knudsen, 26 October 2020, Dahrendorf Forum

Disinformation, Misinformation and Inequality-Driven Mistrust in the Time of COVID-19: Lessons Unlearned from AIDS Denialism, J. Jaiswal, C. LoSchiavo, D. C. Perlman, AIDS Behav. May 2020

Shelter in place? Depends on the place: Corruption and social distancing in American states, Oguzhan Dincer, Robert Gillanders, Social Science & Medicine, January 2021

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