Female instructor standing behind wooden podium in front of classroom.

Penn State Hazleton criminal justice professor co-authors book on conspiracy theories, extreme beliefs

Criminal Justice Professor Pam Black recently co-authored a book that examines Americans' reasoning for embracing conspiracy theories and holding extreme beliefs.

By Alan Janesch

Americans who have money troubles — and/or feel stressed, powerless, or lonely — are more likely than others to believe in conspiracy theories or hold extreme beliefs, according to a criminal justice professor at Penn State Hazleton. 

In a new book, "Conspiracy Beliefs as Coping Behavior: Life Stressors, Powerlessness, and Extreme Beliefs," Pam Black said that Americans “who are disenfranchised or feel disenfranchised are more likely to think the deck is stacked against them, and want a rational explanation for it, some way that they can explain why they can’t get ahead, or why they continue to struggle.” 

Published in November 2022 by Lexington Books, the book’s findings are based on Black’s surveys of 977 individuals. Survey respondents experiencing stress tended to believe that:  

  • The U.S. government is involved in various sorts of crime within U.S. borders, including murder and acts of terrorism
  • Secret groups are controlling and/or manipulating world events
  • Evidence of extraterrestrial contact is being concealed from the public
  • Science is being used to manipulate the public, e.g. to spread disease or secretly use mind-control technologies 
  • New information and technological developments are being deliberately concealed from the public. 

“Karl Marx said that religion is the opiate of the masses,” Black said. “I’d like to tweak that and say that conspiracy theories are the opiate of the masses.”

By opiate, Black said, Marx didn’t mean a substance that gave users a euphoric rush. He meant something more like an anesthetic.

"A way to numb the pain, to numb the negative feelings that you get whenever you feel that no matter how hard you try, you’re never going to win,” she said.

Believing in conspiracy theories may have a similar effect. Black, who coordinates the Criminal Justice program at Penn State Hazleton, believes that holding extreme beliefs may serve as a kind of “social lubricant” that helps people connect with others, offering a sense of understanding, strength and community. 

“I’ve been telling my students for years that I’m 100 percent convinced that the CIA killed Bob Marley. Now, do I really think they did that?” Black said. “Maybe not, but it’s a nice icebreaker because everybody’s heard of Bob Marley and everybody is suspicious of the CIA.” (Several years ago, a rumor surfaced that a CIA agent had killed reggae superstar Bob Marley, who in fact died of cancer in 1981. A real attempt on Marley’s life in 1976 probably added fuel to the CIA assassination story.) 

Black said it would be hard to measure whether people are hard-wired to believe in conspiracy theories, but she does note that people have held extreme beliefs for a long time.

For instance, in the 1st century AD, it was popularly believed that the Roman emperor Nero would return after his death (in 68 AD), or had never really died at all, and would return either to destroy Rome or to reclaim his rule. 

So, what people tend to adopt extreme beliefs? Black cites earlier research identifying females, especially where paranormal beliefs are concerned; older people (although younger people tend to gravitate to extreme beliefs about power and powerlessness); economically disadvantaged people; and those without a college degree.  

According to “general strain theory,” developed by Robert Agnew in 1992, people who lack traditional coping strategies for dealing with stress will be more inclined to engage in “deviant” behavior: e.g., substance abuse, gambling, even violent crime.  

While Black’s previous research had specifically focused on general strain theory, her collaboration with co-author Helen Hendy (professor emeritus of psychology at Penn State Schuylkill) has led her to a more psychological model — maladaptive coping, as formalized by Richard S. Lazarus and Susan Folkman in their 1984 book, Stress, Appraisal, and Coping. 

“My gut feeling is that most people truly do not believe the most outlandish conspiracy theories, but it can connect people who think like them or feel like them,” Black said. “If [for instance] your significant other leaves you, and you don’t have money [or other resources], you don’t have those traditional or socially acceptable outlets to make yourself feel better. But you can go to [social media sites] and hang out with people who like the same kind of conspiracies you have, and all of a sudden you’ve got a whole bunch of new friends.”