In the immediate aftermath of a sudden shocking event like the Las Vegas massacre, conspiracy theories start flying in the ether like black crows out on revenge.
Multiple shooters and hundreds of law enforcement officers secretly conspiring to cover up evidence were two of the theories doing the rounds.
Why do people believe conspiracy theories like these? Are they crazy themselves?
No, not really. Not according to research published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.
Conspiracy theorists are just people who see connections where other people don’t. They connect the dots, so to speak – but maybe some illusionary ones as well.
A team of psychologists from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands and the University of Kent in the UK has determined that some people’s tendency to believe in conspiracy theories is due to a faulty thinking pattern called ‘illusory pattern perception’.
Their research paper is titled “Connecting the dots: Illusory pattern perception predicts belief in conspiracies and the supernatural”.
The researchers distinguish between irrational beliefs, belief in conspiracy theories and supernatural beliefs.
- Irrational beliefs are defined as unfounded, unscientific, and illogical assumptions about the world.
- Conspiracy theories are commonly defined as the assumption that a group of people colludes together in secret to attain evil goals.
- Supernatural beliefs are defined as beliefs that violate scientifically founded principles of nature, including superstition, belief in the paranormal, horoscopes, and telepathy.
The scientists make the point that since conspiracies do occur, not all conspiracy theories are irrational (e.g., Watergate).
But, “many conspiracy theories that citizens believe are unlikely in light of logic or scientific evidence, including theories that 9-11 was an inside job, that the pharmaceutical industry deliberately spreads diseases, or that climate change is a lie fabricated by scientists,” the team writes in the study.
You’d be surprised to find out the kind of people prone to become conspiracy theorists: your ordinary, perfectly sane person. And here I was thinking only an insane person can believe that the world is actually ruled by reptiles dressed in clothes!
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So, why are some completely sane people inclined to be taken in by stories of malevolence planned in secrecy?
Illusionary Pattern perception
In ordinary pattern perception we make sense of the world by identifying meaningful relationships between real stimuli (e.g., a red traffic light signals danger; thunder and lightning signals a rain storm). However, when people make meaningful connections between stimuli that are in fact unrelated, it leads to illusionary pattern perception.
An obvious sphere of life where pattern perception comes into play is predicting the outcome of sport events. For instance, betting on a horse because it’s carrying the same weight it did last time it won and has the same jockey on its back.
Why conspiracy theories at all?
The researchers refer to a range of previous studies that concluded conspiracy theories start to proliferate in threatening societal events where people feel that they lack control – like 9/11 and the Dallas massacre.
All these studies suggest a link between pattern perception – seeing patterns where there aren’t any — and conspiracy theories, but direct evidence is currently lacking, hence this study.
To tackle this problem, the team devised a series of experiments.
The researchers used a series of randomly simulated coin tosses and asked respondents to rate whether those tosses were actually random or in a sequence. People who saw patterns in random coin tosses were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories and supernatural phenomenon.
In the second experiment the scientists investigated whether being prompted to look for patterns would skew the results and in a third they used abstract art instead of coin flips. People who saw patterns in chaotic abstract art were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.
The study also looked at external influences like reading about paranormal or conspiracy beliefs. The researchers found that after people had been exposed to such reading materials, they were more likely to see patterns in coin tosses, paintings and life, and reading about one conspiracy theory made people more likely to believe in another one.
Here’s the bottom line: there is empirical evidence that illusory pattern perception is at the basis of irrational beliefs including conspiracy theories and supernatural phenomena.
People are taken in by conspiracy theories because their brains work in a certain way.
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