Mind & Body

Illusory Pattern Perception is Why Conspiracy Theorists Believe Such Wild Things

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Have you ever noticed that there's an eye in a pyramid on the back of every dollar bill? And that there are pyramids in Egypt? And that the Sphinx is in Egypt too, and "sphinx" rhymes with "stinks"? It all adds up — the United States is telling each and every one of us that we stink. Either that, or we're somehow perceiving patterns that aren't really there.

Finding Hidden Patterns

According to a study in the European Journal of Social Psychology, "illusory pattern perception" is a major cause of belief in conspiracy theories. You can probably guess from the name what that kind of perception is. Basically, every time you make a connection between two unrelated events or experiences, you've got an IPP problem. For example, if you bring a PB&J to work three days in a row and your workplace nemesis calls in sick all three days, you might be inclined to stick with the sandwiches — but your good fortune is almost certainly a coincidence. And there are other types of illusory pattern perceptions that are a lot less far-fetched. Take constellations, for example: there's not really any connection between the stars in the Big Dipper, but for some reason, some Greek dude looked up one night and said, "Oh yeah, that's definitely a sky-bear."

So it might not seem too surprising that a tendency to notice patterns where there are no patterns to notice can be linked to believing in conspiracy theories, but scientists had never actually looked into that connection before. In the experiment, the researchers gathered 264 adults from the United States and started by quizzing them on a variety of conspiracy theories. They found out how each of the subjects felt about the moon-landing hoax, whether or not the Ebola virus is manmade, and the dangerous side-effects of the Red Bull ingredient "testiculus taurus" (they made that last one up just for the study). Next, they gave each participant a series of pattern-recognition tests and they found an obvious correlation — if you can believe a shadowy cabal of scientists, at least.

Painting a Picture

The first test was about as random as you can possibly get (though not entirely random): a coin toss. The people who believed in more conspiracy theories were more likely to perceive patterns in the way the coin landed. Then it was time for an even more complicated pattern-recognition test.

Each person was given paintings by Victor Vaserely (who was very orderly) and Jackson Pollock (who was very not), and asked if they could find patterns in the abstract works. While most everybody could find patterns in the geometric shapes of Vaserely's pieces, only those who checked off a lot of conspiracy theories saw the patterns in Pollock's painted splatters.

The ability to recognize patterns is primary to the way that humans experience the world, and it seems like people who believe in a lot of conspiracy theories just have that ability cranked up to 11.

Written by Reuben Westmaas November 28, 2017