The Conspiracy Mentality
04 - Illusory Patterns
This is an extention from the previous page but has it's own section because I will be looking at a single research paper.
In a research paper from the European journal of social psychology titled Connecting the dots: Illusory pattern perception predicts belief in conspiracies and the supernatural, researchers took an indepth look at the psychology behind the belief and acceptance of conspiracy theories, they write:
“Belief in conspiracy theories predicts maladaptive perceptions and behaviors such as withdrawal from politics, decreased civic virtue, hostility, and radicalization”
Speaking from personal experience, this is exactly what happened to me during my time stuck in the conspiracy rabbit hole. I was increasingly hostile toward anyone who “didn’t get it”, became militant in my anti-pharm and anti-science rhetoric, and held no interest in being a part of a society that was sheepishly going along with the motions.
The following few quotes explain pretty well what illusory patterns are.
“it has frequently been suggested that irrational beliefs are rooted in pattern perception, that is, the automatic tendency to make sense of the world by identifying meaningful relationships between stimuli”
“Sometimes, however, there are distortions to this otherwise functional process as people may connect dots that are in fact unrelated, leading to illusory pattern perception—misperceiving meaningful patterns in what are in fact random stimuli.”
“random process often generates sequences that appear nonrandom to the human mind, and that may even contain occasional symmetries or esthetic regularities. As a result, it is difficult for people to appreciate the role of coincidence in generating these pattern-like sequences”
“Illusory pattern perception occurs when people mistakenly perceive randomly generated stimuli as causally determined through a nonrandom process, and hence as diagnostic for what future stimuli to expect. A common assumption, then, is that illusory pattern perception is at the core of many of the irrational beliefs that people hold.”
Something I found absolutely fascinating was the following section which describes superstitious behaviour in pigeons.
“Even pigeons seem subject to illusory pattern perception. In a classic study by Skinner (1948), hungry pigeons received food at regular time intervals, and as a result, the pigeons increasingly started doing whatever they were doing the last time that they received food. As noted by Skinner, “The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking””
As you may recall from my own personal story, I didn’t actually know anything and everything in the world seemed more upside down, crazy, and scary than I ever thought possible. This line is a perfect description of what that felt like:
“One common proposition is that belief in conspiracy theories often constitutes attempts to understand distressing events that are dificult to understand otherwise”
I was very vocal on facebook about the MH17 plane crash when it happened, and I was heavily invested in it being an orchestration of the CIA. I used the legitimate Operation Northwoods document as an example of this very same conspiracy happening. What I think I’m getting at is even awful and scary situations like a passenger plane being shot down can be normalised if it happened for a reason. Truly randomised tragedy is a horrifying prospect. A CIA false flag is scary, but at least you have an explanation.
“These arguments suggest that irrational beliefs help people make sense of their world by increasing a subjective sense of predictability, and pattern perception is a key element of this process.”
I found the following quite appropriate.
“irrational beliefs are rooted in pattern perception, as establishing relevant patterns makes an unpredictable, uncertain, and potentially threatening environment more predictable.”
Prehistoric man is a great example of this. Bolts of deadly, super violent and very loud lightning are thundering from the sky. What is it? What caused it? The gods are angry and we must please them. If we please the gods, they will stop the lightning. In reality we know lightning has nothing to do with gods but with atmospheric activity. Randomness can and was interpreted by societies for time immemorial to make the unexplainable world easier to cope with.
To translate that into present day, when a population gets suprised in a seemingly random attack that horrifies the world, automatically claiming it's a coverup by the CIA is a great way to diminish the uncertainty and fear that comes along with a chaotic world where seemingly anything can happen at any time.
In the first study conducted in this research paper they measured participants' belief in popular conspiracy theories, belief in a conspiracy they made up for the study, belief in the supernatural, and finally their belief in whether a 50/50 coin flip sequence was constructed.
“perceiving patterns in randomly generated coin toss outcomes was significantly correlated with both measures of conspiracy beliefs, and with supernatural beliefs”
It goes without saying, but those who believed conspiracy theories, believed the random coin flips had a pattern to them, believed in supernatural concepts, and most interestingly, believed a completely made up conspiracy theory.
In study 3 they evaluated people’s conspiracy and supernatural belief again but showed them structured and unstructured modern art. The goal was to find if people with irrational beliefs in conspiracy theories would see more patterns in paintings which had no structure as opposed to others.
“Consistent with the idea that irrational beliefs are driven by illusory pattern perception only, perceiving patterns in the unstructured Pollock paintings signficantly predicted belief in existing conspiracy theories (r =.36,p < .001), belief in fictitious conspiracy theories (r =.31,p = .002), and supernatural beliefs”
“These findings suggest that only perceiving patterns in random or chaotic stimuli (i.e., illusory pattern perception) predicts irrational beliefs, and not recognizing patterns in structured stimuli.”
“Intriguingly, ratings of familiarity were strongly correlated with irrational beliefs (see Table 3), suggesting that such beliefs may be grounded in a general tendency to overestimate one’s knowledge—a possibility that future research may explore further.”
In study 4 the researchers showed a similarly written blog but manipulated to be from alternative thinkers about conspiracy theories, someone writing about the supernatural, or about a sceptic disregarding these things. They measured the results against the different illusory pattern results from prior studies. What they found was that the more patterns people perceived, the less they agreed with the sceptic and embraced the conspiracy theories and supernatural.
“These findings indicate that agreeing with paranormal beliefs and conspiracy theories, but not agreeing with a skeptic, predicts pattern perception”
In the introduction to study 5 they write:
“A common research finding is that belief in one conspiracy theory predicts belief in other, unrelated conspiracy theories. This finding is usually interpreted as evidence that acceptance of one conspiracy theory reinforces a more general belief system assuming that the world is being governed by conspiracies”
1 million times yes. This is absolutely how it works. You believe one conspiracy and all of a sudden you’re watching Zeitgeist, Ancient Aliens, Alex Jones, Conspiracy Theories with Jesse Ventura, and binging conspiracy videos on YouTube. Not to mention the many history revisionist “documentaries” on Netflix.
I went from 9/11 being an inside job to aliens building the pyramids, secret nazi airports, the Illuminati, the knights templars and freemasons secretly ruling the world, and much more.
“A robust finding in irrational belief research is that conspiracy beliefs and supernatural beliefs are strongly intercorrelated.”
Among conspiracy videos, I also got heavily into Ghost Adventures and many TV series looking for supernatural beings like the Chupacabra and bigfoot. I found myself immersed in conspiracy and the supernatural world that “science was too arrogant to accept”.
“Previous research offers various explanations for the link between conspiracy theories and supernatural beliefs, such as anti-conformist tendencies and an inclination to reject conventional explanations or authority opinions”
I don’t think it can be written any clearer to be honest. This is EXACTLY how I felt and this is exactly what I see in people who repeat conspiracy theories or supernatural superstition such as protection crystals.
“These findings reveal that being exposed to a conspiracy theory increased the extent to which people perceive patterns in world events, which in turn predicts a range of unrelated irrational beliefs.”
All I can say is the rabbit hole is real, and it is very very long. Once you’re in, the light is impossibly dim and it takes a lot of clawing upwards to get out. Finishing up:
“The answer that emerges from our data is that irrational beliefs are associated with a distortion of an otherwise normal and functional cognitive process, namely, pattern perception. People need to detect existing patterns in order to function well in their physical and social environment; however, this process also leads them to sometimes detect patterns in chaotic or randomly generated stimuli.
Whereas the role of illusory pattern perception has frequently been suggested as a core process underlying irrational beliefs, the actual evidence for this assertion hitherto [ up until this point ] was unsatisfactory. The present findings offer empirical evidence for the role of illusory pattern perception in irrational beliefs.
We conclude that illusory pattern perception is a central cognitive ingredient of beliefs in conspiracy theories and supernatural phenomena.”
Moving on, I will show you what I believe to be the 4 archetypes of an alternative-thinker.