This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Learn more

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.

Article continues below

Elon Musk is pushing the boundaries of where we can go and what we can do. Don't miss a beat by signing up for Musk Reads, our weekly newsletter about all things SpaceX, Tesla, and The Boring Company.
Sign up for our newsletter:

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.

Why Experts Say "Zombie Deer" Disease Can Spread Chronic Wasting to Humans

 "It's possible the number of human cases will be substantial." 

A few months ago, the “zombie deer disease” was largely the concern of deer hunters, deer activists, and anyone generally attuned to weird zombie-like diseases that abound in nature. But now, the disease is present in deer in 24 states and two Canadian provinces, and experts are warning it may be transmissible to humans — a potential risk that is too pressing to ignore.

The Incredible Science Behind This Self-Warming, Self-Cooling Bed

Eight Sleep’s new bed will make tossing and turning a thing of the past.

Filed Under Data

Sleep tracking can unquestionably help you establish better habits which allow for a more restful night’s sleep. By keeping track of the nights that you toss and turn, you can identify potential explanations for your sub-optimal slumber. Maybe it’s the time of week that’s got you anxious. Maybe it was the cheeseburger you had for lunch. Paying attention is just the start, though.

Brain Scans Reveal Why "Night Owls" Have It Rough in a 9-to-5 Society: Study

The results explain why we need to "create more flexibility in our society."

The 9-to-5 workday originated with American labor unions in the 1800s, and today, the eight-hour workday is the norm. But however normalized the schedule, it is directly opposed to something more powerful: biology.

In a new study, scientists report that people whose internal body clocks tell them to go to bed late, but are then forced to wake up early, have a lower resting brain connectivity in the regions of the brain linked to consciousness.

Did Inbreeding Kill the Neanderthals? Experts Say Skeletons Hold Clues

Things got a little "Game of Thrones."

Today, Homo sapiens are the only humans left on Earth. But thousands of years ago there were more of us — other species that belonged to the same genus, and in turn, our family tree. They are now extinct and scientists endeavor to figure out why.

In a new study published this month in Scientific Reports, a team took on the case of Homo neanderthalensis, and argue that the reason they died out was because things turned a little Game of Thrones.

The 'Stoned Ape' Theory Might Explain Our Extraordinary Evolution

A scientist resurfaces a psychedelic retelling of human evolution.

Imagine Homo erectus, a now-extinct species of hominids that stood upright and became the first of our ancestors to move beyond a single continent. Around two million years ago, these hominids, some of whom eventually evolved into Homo sapiens, began to expand their range beyond Africa, moving into Asia and Europe. Along the way, they tracked animals, encountered dung, and discovered new plants.