According to various recent polls, nearly 50 percent of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory. Other similar polls have found that over 50 percent of Americans believe that ancient advanced civilizations such as Atlantis once existed. If these aren’t you, then it’s the person standing next to you in line, sitting in front of you at the game or sending you a meme online. If you’d like to engage in a rational conversation with them (or perhaps discuss your own ‘interesting’ theories) without shouting, fisticuffs or resorting to all capital letters, there’s a new study to help you out.
A group of psychologists from the University of Kent and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam conducted tests on over 250 U.S. volunteers to determine if it’s possible to identify signs indicating acceptance of conspiracy theories and/or paranormal beliefs. They first presented the participants with real and imaginary conspiracy theories and asked them to rate believability on a 1 to 9 scale. The ‘theories’ included “Ebola is a man-made virus” and “the moon landing was a hoax.”
Once the subjects’ susceptibility to conspiracy and paranormal theories were ranked, the experiments began. The first simple test involved watching coin tosses. Participants who saw patterns in the results were found to be more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Tests two and three exposed the volunteers to geometric designs by Victor Vasarely and the abstract paintings of Jackson Pollock. Paranormal and conspiracy believers tended to see patterns in Pollock’s paintings but not in Vasarely’s.
Are you noticing a pattern here? You may want to change your answer after reading the results of the study published in the current edition of the European Journal of Social Psychology.
“Illusory pattern perception is a central cognitive ingredient of beliefs in conspiracy theories and supernatural phenomena.”
‘Pattern perception’ is the cognitive ability to identify meaningful relationships between events – a green traffic light means proceed, foot pain means shoes are on backwards, etc. When there are multiple relationships leading to a conclusion, we call it “connecting the dots.” If a person sees a connection between events that are completely unrelated – it rained and you found a 20-dollar bill so you should always look for money in downpours – the dot connections are mere illusions and the thinking is called illusory pattern perception.
Would you like to change your answer now?
The researchers also found that beliefs in conspiracy theories reinforce acceptance in new ones.
“Following a manipulation of belief in one conspiracy theory, people saw events in the world as more strongly causally connected, which in turn predicted unrelated irrational beliefs.”
The key ingredient is pattern perception.
“These findings are consistent with the idea that irrational beliefs are rooted in pattern perception, as establishing relevant patterns makes an unpredictable, uncertain, and potentially threatening environment more predictable.”
That makes sense. However, if you want to engage in a non-combative discussion on this with conspiracy theorists or people who disagree with your paranormal beliefs, you may want to avoid words like “irrational.”