Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Seeing Is Believing

By Tim Hannan

Illusory pattern perception is associated with a belief in conspiracy theories.

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Some conspiracy theories are trivial, absurd and even amusing. Elvis is still alive, but Paul McCartney died in 1966 and was replaced by a look- and sound-alike (admittedly a very talented and successful doppelganger). The world is run by a secret society of Illuminati, or perhaps by the Anunnaki: shape-shifting extraterrestrial reptiles whose numbers include members of the British royal family and several US presidents (though not the one you might expect). Other conspiracy theories create fear, social disharmony and radicalisation: global warming is a lie perpetrated by so-called climate scientists; the CIA created AIDS; and vaccines cause autism.

While not all conspiracy theories are irrational, many of those most widely circulated are at least highly unlikely when viewed from the perspective of logic, science or common sense. Their prevalence and potentially harmful impact is reason enough to try to identify why such theories are so readily entertained, and why they seem to spread so easily among the population. The dominant psychological explanation proposes that belief in conspiracy theories is related to the human tendency to see patterns in data where none actually exist.

It has been previously established that humans have an inherent disposition to detect patterns in visual data, with a common example being the detection of faces or other familiar...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.