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.

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 images in random stimuli (e.g. “Jesus on Toast”, AS, June 2016, p.41). This disposition is understood to result from the automatic operation of a pattern recognition system, hard-wired in the brain, that assists us to make quick and accurate judgements about our environment. Pattern perception is evolutionally advantageous as it enables us to make sense of our world and to develop reasonable predictions of future events.

It has often been suggested that a person’s endorsement of conspiracy theories and other supernatural beliefs may reflect an enhanced disposition to illusory pattern perception: the more one perceives patterns in random data, the greater the tendency to accept such theories. While this proposal is widely accepted, to date there has been little direct supporting evidence. Recently, a team of researchers from the Netherlands and United Kingdom sought to address this through a series of experiments, with the results published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

First, participants were asked to rate the strength of their belief in various conspiracy theories, including widely-circulated notions such as “The US government had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks”, “Ebola is a man-made virus” and “The moon landing was a hoax”, as well as experimenter-designed theories such as “Red Bull contains illegal substances that raise the desire for the product”. Participants also rated their agreement with statements concerning supernatural or magical beliefs, such as “Horoscopes are right too often for it to be a coincidence” and “I think I could learn to read other people’s minds if I wanted to”.

The experimenters then investigated whether those who endorsed conspiratorial and supernatural propositions were more likely to perceive patterns in random data. This was done by asking participants to rate their belief in whether the results of sets of 10 consecutive coin tosses (e.g. HHTTHHHTTT) were random or pre-determined. As expected, those who perceived patterns in the random data were more likely to endorse conspiratorial and supernatural beliefs.

In another study, the experimenters investigated whether acceptance of conspiracy theories and supernatural beliefs was associated with a tendency to perceive patterns in abstract art. Participants viewed several of Jackson Pollock’s rather chaotic paintings and the more geometrically-ordered works of Victor Vasarely, and rated the extent to which they perceived patterns in each. The researchers found that perceiving patterns in the unstructured Pollock paintings was correlated with a belief in current and experimenter-invented conspiracy theories and with supernatural beliefs; in contrast, finding patterns in the more structured Vasarely paintings was not associated with such beliefs.

Together, these studies suggest that people with a greater disposition than others to seek and locate patterns in random data are more likely to hold the irrational beliefs at the core of common conspiracy theories. Effectively, those who hold conspiracy theories actually “see” the world differently.

At least, that’s what we neuropsychologists would want you to believe.

A/Prof Tim Hannan is Head of the School of Psychology at Charles Sturt University, and the Past President of the Australian Psychological Society.