First, they asked 264 subjects to rate the strength of their belief in both fictitious and well-known conspiracy theories on a scale of 1 to 9. Their belief in supernatural phenomena (like horoscopes and telepathy) was also ranked. Then the subjects participated in five different studies.
In the first, they were asked if they saw any patterns in a series of random coin tosses. In the second study they were asked to guess what the next coin toss would be after a series of random tosses (some were instructed to look for patterns, others not). "Perceiving patterns in randomly generated coin toss outcomes was significantly correlated with both measures of conspiracy beliefs, and with supernatural beliefs," the study authors write. "These findings are the first to directly suggest a relationship between belief in conspiracy theories and pattern perception, and conceptually replicate this relationship for supernatural beliefs."
A third study found a link between irrational beliefs and perception of patterns in chaotic paintings, such as those by Jackson Pollack, known for his paint splatter art. In other words, people with greater belief in conspiracy theories and the supernatural saw more patterns in the art even though there weren't any.
Study 4 had the participants read either a conspiracist, skeptic or paranormal blog. The results showed that agreement with the conspiracist or paranormal blogs predicted pattern perception. And the fifth study manipulated an internet article on the NSA so there were two versions — one pro-conspiracy and the other anti-conspiracy. Those who read the pro-conspiracy version were more likely to see patterns in world events. These two studies showed how external influences affected people's perceptions. "Taken together, these findings support the assumption that illusory pattern perception is a basic cognitive aspect of the conspiracy and supernatural beliefs under investigation here," the authors write.
Now, regular old pattern perception is important for human behavior because it helps us understand the world by figuring out relationships, like drinking water helps with thirst, and being mean to someone will earn an unfriendly reaction. If we couldn't see any patterns, we'd be doomed to make the same mistakes over and over. It's when we see patterns where they aren't there that we may get into trouble.