Believers in conspiracy theories and the paranormal are more likely to see “illusory patterns”

GettyImages-177765632.jpgBy Emma Young

Democratic bankers caused the global financial crisis to get Barack Obama elected. 

Horoscopes are right too often for it to be a coincidence. 

Irrational beliefs – unfounded, unscientific and illogical assumptions about the world – are widespread among “the population of normal, mentally sane adults” note the authors of a new study in European Journal of Social Psychology. It’s been proposed that they arise from a mistaken perception of patterns in the world. But though this idea is popular among psychologists, there’s been surprisingly little direct evidence in favour of it. The new work, led by Jan-Willem van Prooijen at the Free University of Amsterdam, helps to fill the void.

Pattern perception is a crucial cognitive ability. It allows us to identify meaningful relationships between events – such as “red traffic light means danger” or “drinking water quenches thirst”. When people join the dots between events that are in fact unrelated (I wore red socks and aced my exam – they are “lucky socks”), they engage in so-called illusory pattern perception.

To explore whether an adherence to conspiracy theories or a belief in the supernatural really are grounded in illusory pattern perception, the researchers devised a series of studies.

First, they assessed belief in existing, well-known – and also fictitious – conspiracy theories in a group of 264 American adults. The participants were asked, for example, to indicate, on a scale of 1 to 9, how strongly they believed in the statement: “The US government had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks”. Their belief in the supernatural was evaluated using a scale that measured agreement with statements like “I think I could learn to read other people’s minds if I wanted to”.

When shown the results of a series of randomly generated coin tosses, people who scored relatively highly on these two scales were more likely to mistakenly perceive patterns – they believed that the series of heads and tails wasn’t random even though it was. “These findings are the first to directly suggest a relationship between belief in conspiracy theories and pattern perception, and [to] conceptually replicate this relationship for supernatural beliefs,” the researchers wrote.

In further studies with different groups, they explored this further. To investigate whether spotting patterns in general – whether they’re illusory or real – can stoke irrational beliefs, they asked volunteers to what extent they saw patterns in paintings by two modern artists: Victor Vasarely (a French-Hungarian artist whose geometric abstract art contains obvious patterns) and Jackson Pollock (an abstract expressionist painter whose work the researchers described as “unstructured” and therefore likely to feature only illusory patterns).

Only a perception of patterns in the unstructured Pollack paintings was correlated with belief in existing conspiracy theories, fictitious conspiracy theories (about purported underhand activities of a beverage company, for instance) and supernatural beliefs. Seeing patterns in the highly structured Vasarely paintings was unrelated to these beliefs.

In another study, the researchers found that reading about paranormal or conspiracy beliefs (but not sceptical writings) caused a slight increase in the perception of patterns in coin tosses, paintings, and also “life” (as measured by agreement with statements like “Societal events that seem unrelated frequently are in fact related”). They further found that reading about one conspiracy theory made volunteers more likely to believe in other conspiracy theories. This supports the idea that conspiracy theorising increases the perception of illusory patterns in world events, the researchers said.

Irrational beliefs are not necessarily harmless, as the researchers note. Belief in conspiracy theories is linked to increased hostility and radicalisation, while supernatural beliefs may lead people to hand over money to spiritual healers or tarot card readers. Uncertain times breed these kinds of beliefs, which can be seen as ways to make an unpredictable and potentially threatening environment feel more predictable.

“The present findings offer empirical evidence for the role of illusory pattern perception in irrational beliefs,” the researchers write in their paper. “We conclude that illusory pattern perception is a central cognitive ingredient of beliefs in conspiracy theories and supernatural phenomena.”

Connecting the dots: Illusory pattern perception predicts belief in conspiracies and the supernatural

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

14 thoughts on “Believers in conspiracy theories and the paranormal are more likely to see “illusory patterns””

  1. This research is so bad on a level that should be obvious to any scientist. The authors of that paper write that “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. Supernatural beliefs are defined as beliefs that violate scientifically founded principles of nature, including superstition, belief in the paranormal, horoscopes, and telepathy (Lindeman & Aarnio, 2007).”

    If you want to study “irrational beliefs”, you better make sure that those beliefs are known falsities beyond reasonable doubt. Claiming this status for the proposition that 9/11 was an inside job or that supernatural beliefs violate scientifically founded principles in nature is certainly not warranted.

    (Note that *defining* supernatural beliefs as beliefs in things that violate scientific principles is completely non-sensical: the question of the reality of what is referred to as “supernatural phenomena” cannot answered by defining them out of existence, and the corresponding beliefs cannot be ruled as irrational by fiat.)

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    1. Well, although I agree with some of what you wrote, LF, you clearly haven’t thought hard enough about what would be required for it to be true that “9/11 was an inside job.” Here it is in a nutshell:

      Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld wanted to help out some friends at Halliburton, who could make more money if there was a war. So they decided to kill thousands of innocent Americans, and blame it on some other country, to start a war.

      So they assembled teams of hundreds of covert operatives, to do the deed. The interviews went something like this:

      Rummy: Hey, commando guy, can you keep a secret?
      Interviewee: Sure.
      Rummy: Promise?
      Interviewee: I promise.
      Rummy: Would you like to make a little extra dough by slaughtering thousands of innocent American men, women & children?
      Interviewee #1: No problem, sign me up!
      [or]
      Interviewee #2: No way!
      Rummy: Remember, you promised not to tell!

      Then they bought tons of of magical, silent, fireproof, airplane-collision-proof explosives & detonators for each building, explosives of a sort which to this day nobody has ever heard of.

      Then the commando guys crawled around the Twin Towers and WTC-7 on 9-10-2001, planting bombs.

      And NOBODY saw them do it – they were THAT good. (And because 9/10/01 was a Sunday, and nobody in New York works on Sundays.)

      And they recruited a bunch of dumb Arabs to fly airliners into buildings, as distractions. (Those interviews were even more fun!)

      And the huge aviation-fuel-accelerated fires didn’t damage the magical, silent explosives and detonators, which worked perfectly when Cheney pushed the button on his remote detonator.

      And it all went off just exactly as they planned.

      They even managed to figure out in advance which floors the planes were going to hit on each of the Twin Towers, so they could plant the magic fireproof explosives on the right floors, so the buildings would collapse starting where the planes struck, to avoid suspicion.

      And they even managed to figure out in advance which one of the other surrounding buildings would be damaged and set ablaze by flaming debris from the Twin Towers, to provide cover for the subsequent controlled demolition destruction of THAT building, too.

      They really thought of everything!

      And they pulled it all off in just the 8.5 months they’d been in office, using government employees.

      And in the 16 years since, NONE of these hundreds of conspirators, nor any of the rejected interviewees, EVER had a pang of conscience and spilled the beans, because they pinky-promised to never tell, and pinky promises are sacred to black ops commandos.

      Dang, those government employees are REALLY good at what they do!

      But I just have one question for you, LF.

      If U.S. government employees are THAT good, why they couldn’t even get a simple ObamaCare web site working with 2.5 years of work and hundreds of millions of dollars to spend?

      Do you think Bush Republicans are THAT much smarter than Obama Democrats?

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      1. Dave – thanks for your thoughts. I think you’re attributing too much to me. My claim really is only this: If you want to study “irrational beliefs”, you better make sure that those beliefs are known falsities beyond reasonable doubt. The view that 9/11 was an inside job is certainly not beyond reasonable doubt.

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  2. Note that this study, itself, is an example of the sort of “pattern matching” that the study seeks to identify: They sought to find a correlation between two behaviors. The most obvious difference is that the study’s authors sought to quantify the results with statistics.

    The result is certainly plausible, but I have some doubts:

    1. I wonder whether this study would have been submitted for publication, or accepted if submitted, had they not found the correlation that they sought.

    2. I wonder whether these authors tried other tests, which “didn’t work,” and weren’t mentioned.

    3. I wonder whether other researchers have tried similar experiments, but didn’t publish the results because they “didn’t work.”

    4. The authors wrote that, “A common assumption… is that illusory pattern perception is at the core of many of the irrational beliefs that people hold… Given how fundamental and widely accepted this assumption is… it is surprising how little direct empirical evidence there is available to support the role of illusory pattern perception in irrational beliefs in general, and particularly in the domain of conspiracy theories. The current program of research is designed to fill this void.” A plausible explanation for the “surprising” lack of published studies is that other study results weren’t published because they “didn’t work” — i.e., they didn’t find the desired result.

    5. I wonder about the study’s apparently very lax selection criteria for study participants. (“This study… was run online through the Crowdflower… website for crowdsourcing… [which was programmed to ensure] that each IP-address could participate only once.”)

    In other words, I wonder whether the results are correct and reproducible.

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