Irrational beliefs – unfounded, unscientific and illogical assumptions about the world – are widespread among “the population of normal, mentally sane adults” note the authors of a new study in European Journal of Social Psychology. It’s been proposed that they arise from a mistaken perception of patterns in the world. But though this idea is popular among psychologists, there’s been surprisingly little direct evidence in favour of it. The new work, led by Jan-Willem van Prooijen at the Free University of Amsterdam, helps to fill the void.
Pattern perception is a crucial cognitive ability. It allows us to identify meaningful relationships between events – such as “red traffic light means danger” or “drinking water quenches thirst”. When people join the dots between events that are in fact unrelated (I wore red socks and aced my exam – they are “lucky socks”), they engage in so-called illusory pattern perception.
To explore whether an adherence to conspiracy theories or a belief in the supernatural really are grounded in illusory pattern perception, the researchers devised a series of studies.
First, they assessed belief in existing, well-known – and also fictitious – conspiracy theories in a group of 264 American adults. The participants were asked, for example, to indicate, on a scale of 1 to 9, how strongly they believed in the statement: “The US government had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks”. Their belief in the supernatural was evaluated using a scale that measured agreement with statements like “I think I could learn to read other people’s minds if I wanted to”.
When shown the results of a series of randomly generated coin tosses, people who scored relatively highly on these two scales were more likely to mistakenly perceive patterns – they believed that the series of heads and tails wasn’t random even though it was. “These findings are the first to directly suggest a relationship between belief in conspiracy theories and pattern perception, and [to] conceptually replicate this relationship for supernatural beliefs,” the researchers wrote.