Yes, Conspiracy Theorists’ Brains Really Are Different

By: Alia Hoyt

Scientists have shown that illusory pattern perception is at the heart of conspiracy theory belief. Ron Sanford/Getty Images
Scientists have shown that illusory pattern perception is at the heart of conspiracy theory belief. Ron Sanford/Getty Images

9-11 was an inside job. The moon landing was faked. Vaccines cause autism. These are just a few of the most well-known conspiracy theories perpetuated by otherwise intelligent, everyday people. But why do some people believe these things and others don't? Scientists are one step closer to figuring that out, and it appears that the answer lies within the brains of the theorists' themselves, which affects how they see they world.

Scientists had long hypothesized that conspiracy theory belief (which the researchers of a new paper define as "the assumption that a group of people colludes together in secret to attain evil goals") was due to a phenomenon known as "illusory pattern perception" — seeing patterns where none really exist. But few studies had been done to support this. So, the British and Dutch scientists conducted a series of experiments to fill that void. Their paper was published recently in the European Journal of Social Psychology.


Conspiracy Theories and Supernatural Beliefs

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.


Why Conspiracy Theories Are Bigger Than Ever

"The really fascinating thing about illusory pattern perception is that it can affect much more than conspiracy theories," explains Ben Bowlin, co-host of HowStuffWorks' conspiracy theory podcast Stuff They Don't Want You to Know. "This is sort of the same thing responsible for a lot of superstitions over the span of human history. That's why we get those beliefs of good or bad luck – because we constructed a pattern based on the evidence available at the time."

One would think that the availability nowadays of accurate, scientific information would negate belief in conspiracy theories, but just the opposite has happened, according to Bowlin. (His own show got a ton of hate mail after an episode disproving the notion of a flat earth.) Confirmation bias already leads many people to believe what they want to believe and totally shut out evidence to the contrary, no matter how legitimate. "Now with confirmation bias functioning in tandem with this illusory pattern perception, people are not finding all the information that is accurate — they're finding all the information whatsoever that would fit into their view of this pattern," he says. "So, more information has actually accelerated the problem more than mitigating it."

This is reinforced by the feeling of accomplishment that often accompanies belief in unsubstantiated theories. People think they are doing a noble thing by exposing such theories. "They feel a moral imperative to unearth the truth and spread it to the masses," says Bowlin.

Finally, he warns, not all conspiracy theories turn out to be incorrect. "Several have turnout out in retrospect to have a least a grain of truth." For instance, banking giant HSBC was routinely laundering money for drug traffickers. Or even bigger, the Watergate scandal.


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