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

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