Conspiracy theorists have a fault in their thinking process

Our brains are hardwired to recognise patterns in the world around us. It’s the basic principle of how we survive by interpreting our environment – making sense of dangers and gleaning some sense of cause and effect for our actions.

Conspiracy theorists have a fault in their thinking process

But sometimes we see connections where there aren’t any. Conspiracy theories typify this phenomenon, drawing pieces of string (sometimes literally) between disparate events in an attempt to tie the world into some sprawling, obscure narrative. Why do some people have a tendency towards this way of thinking?

A team of psychologists from the University of Kent and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam has determined that conspiracy theorists have a fault in their thinking process – called “illusory pattern perception”. As the name suggests, it’s an act of seeing patterns where none exist.

“Illusory pattern perception” has been linked to conspiracy theorists before, but the scientists behind the study have attempted to buoy this assumption with systematic empirical evidence. Their overall conclusion is that, yes, the phenomenon is a “central cognitive mechanism” accounting for both conspiracy theories and supernatural beliefs.

The researchers conducted five studies on 264 American subjects. These ranged from gauging whether patterns were perceived in randomly generated coin tosses, in abstract art, and in specific texts relating to paranormal beliefs and conspiracy theories.

The study first found that those who saw patterns in the coin tosses were more likely to believe in conspiratorial theories. Then they moved onto the highly geometric paintings of Victor Vasarely and the chaotic daubings of Jackson Pollock. A correlation was found between subjects with conspiratorial and supernatural belief, and those that spotted patterns in Pollock’s artwork (but not Vasarely’s). “We found that only seeing patterns in chaotic stimuli predicted irrational beliefs,” the study explains. “And not detecting patterns in structured stimuli.”

Interestingly, reading about conspiracy theories also led to a slight increase in the perception of patterns. “Following a manipulation of belief in one conspiracy theory, people saw events in the world as more strongly causally connected, which in turn predicted unrelated irrational beliefs.”  

The researchers conclude that “illusory pattern perception is a central cognitive ingredient of beliefs in conspiracy theories and supernatural phenomena”, pointing to a distortion of the everyday process where we identify patterns and connections in nature.  

It’s worth noting that the reasons for people to exhibit “illusory pattern perception” can be manifold, from a lack of analytical education to a lack of control over their environment. They study gestures towards other research, which suggests feelings of uncertainty can increase supernatural beliefs, superstitions and religiosity. “These findings are consistent with the idea that irrational beliefs are rooted in pattern perception, as establishing relevant patterns makes an unpredictable, uncertain, and potentially threatening environment more predictable.”

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