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Conspiracy Theorists Have a Fundamental Cognitive Problem, Say Scientists

And it can affect all of us.

The world’s a scary, unpredictable place, and that makes your brain mad. As a predictive organ, the brain is on the constant lookout for patterns that both explain the world and help you thrive in it. That ability helps humans make sense of the world. For example, you probably understand by now that if you see red, that means that you should be on the lookout for danger.

But as scientists report in a new paper published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, sometimes people sense danger even when there is no pattern to recognize — and so their brains create their own. This phenomenon, called illusory pattern perception, they write, is what drives people who believe in conspiracy theories, like climate change deniers, 9/11 truthers, and “Pizzagate” believers.

The study is especially timely; recent polls suggest that nearly 50 percent of ordinary, non-pathological Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory.

Illusory pattern perception — the act of seeking patterns that aren’t there — has been linked to belief in conspiracy theories before, but that assumption has never really been supported with empirical evidence. The British and Dutch scientists behind the new study are some of the first to show that this explanation is, in fact, correct.

Think the Illuminati run the world? That likely depends on what patterns you see.

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The researchers came to this conclusion after conducting five studies on 264 Americans who focused on the relationship between irrational beliefs and illusory pattern perception. Initial studies revealed that the compulsion to find patterns in an observable situation was in fact correlated with irrational beliefs: People who saw patterns in random coin tosses and chaotic, abstract paintings were more likely to believe in conspiratorial and supernatural theories.

The study showed how susceptible people can be to external influences, too. Reading about paranormal or conspiracy beliefs, the researchers report, caused a “slight increase in the perception of patterns in coin tosses, paintings and life,” and reading about one conspiracy theory made people more likely to believe in another one.

“Following a manipulation of belief in one conspiracy theory people saw events in the world as more strongly casually connected, which in turn predicted unrelated irrational beliefs,” write the authors.

Belief in conspiracy theories goes back centuries.

The researchers suggest that irrational beliefs are born from pattern perception because of the “automatic tendency to make sense of the world by identifying meaningful relationships between stimuli.” But distortions can happen, and the brain can connect dots that are actually nonexistent. People are bad at judging what’s random and believe that, often times, patterns are actually coincidences, which leads to irrational connections between unrelated stimuli. For example, just because societal power is dominated by the rich does not mean those rich people are Illuminati Satanists, though that is a thing that many people believe.

Fortunately, other scientists have found a way to block the pervasiveness of illusory pattern perception: critical thinking. In a previous interview, North Carolina State University psychology professor Anne McLaughlin told Inverse that critical thinking is something that can be taught, and if people are trained in the right way, pseudoscience and false conspiracies can be combated with logic and reasoning. The brain may try to make false connections, but that doesn’t mean you have to believe it.


If you liked this article, check out this video about how gravity doesn’t exist and other flat-Earther beliefs.

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Should NASA focus more on exploring or hauling?

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At that event, Inverse heard from three legendary figures in NASA history, former flight director Milt Winder, Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise, and former flight director Gerry Griffin, and we found out what they think about the space agency’s present and future partnerships with private space companies.

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There’s no squinting in space. Things appear small, sure. From your vantage point, 254 miles above Earth, even the colossal Kapok trees of the Amazon are reduced to a verdant swirl in a cat-eye marble. But in space, as six NASA astronauts tell Inverse, what you see isn’t necessarily what you envision. Up there, where perspective is immeasurably wide, it’s impossible to miss the forest for the trees.

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"I personally did not find it to be creepy, but I think I have a pretty high threshold."

Cats, a sung-through 1981 Andrew Lloyd Webber fever dream based on a T.S. Eliot book of children’s poems about cats and sociology, is the latest musical to get the live-action treatment. It’s not the best idea. As weirded-out responses to the surreal trailer released Thursday suggested, the world is not ready for humanoid cats, which seem to have crept directly out of the uncanny valley. Valley guides agree.

2024 Moon Timeline Is "Extremely Tight," Says Former NASA Flight Director

"American industry, if it gets turned on, can do just about anything."

Whether or not you recognize Milt Windler’s name, you have definitely heard about his escapades. A retired NASA Flight Director, Windler was one of four flight directors on the Apollo 13 operations team, all of whom were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Richard Nixon for their work in guiding the crippled spacecraft safely back to Earth.