Why do people believe Conspiracy Theories? 2


conspiracy
There are moments when many eyes turn and focus on something dramatic. The recent example familiar to most will have been the utterly tragic shooting in Las Vegas that resulted in so much trauma (58 people dead and 546 were injured). Most will correctly attribute this to be the senseless act of one lone wolf but others seeing the exact same series of events unfold, and with access to the same details, will leap to a startlingly different conclusion.

Harassing The Victims

A belief arose within some minds that the shooting did not actually happen, and that instead it was a false flag operation staged by government sponsored crises actors. This belief was so strongly held that those that believed this would seek out, harass, and threaten the victims.

One example is Canadian Braden Matejka who survived. A bullet grazed his head and so he missed death by a fraction of an inch. When his story appeared on the news, he started getting a torrent of online abuse …

“Obviously a TERRIBLE CRISIS ACTOR,” wrote a Facebook user named Samantha. “HE’S SCAMMING THE PUBLIC … This was a government set up.”

“YOUR A LIAR AND THEFT PIECE OF CRAP [sic],” wrote Karen.

“You’ll pay on the other side,” said a user named Mach. Others called Braden a “LYING BASTARD”, “scumbag govt actor” and “fuckin FRAUD”, while one user named Josh wrote: “I hope someone comes after you and literally beats the living fuck outa you.”

This is not unique, because other tragic events see a similar pattern unfold. After the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting parents of dead children faced the traumatic and truly abhorrent claim that they were actors and that their murdered children had never existed …

Robbie Parker, the father of victim Emilie Parker – after doing a CNN interview on the day after the shooting – became the target of conspiracy theorists, who claimed the interview was staged.[59] Parker has been attacked by theorists who believe he is a “crisis actor” and was “getting into character” before going on CNN to grieve over the loss of his child.[59]

In April 2016, Matthew Mills, a 32-year-old man from Brooklyn, accepted a plea agreement with prosecutors on one count of interfering with police arising from an incident in November 2015, when Mills angrily approached the sister of murdered teacher Victoria Soto—who is regarded as a heroine for her attempt to protect her students from the shooter in the Sandy Hook attack—shoved a photograph in her face, “and began angrily charging that not only did the Sandy Hook tragedy not take place, but that Victoria Soto never existed.”[60][61] Mills entered an Alford plea and was thus found guilty; he was given a suspended sentence of one year in jail and two years’ probation.[60]

In December 2016, Lucy Richards, a 57-year-old woman from Tampa, was charged with four counts of transmitting threats in interstate commerce for sending death threats to Lenny Pozner, whose son Noah was the youngest of 20 children murdered.[62][63] Pozner has been particularly targeted by Internet trolls and conspiracy theorists because he has vocally fought back against them.[64]

Why do some people believe what is obviously nonsense?

There is a new study that gives us some further insights. Sitting between our ears is a pattern recognition engine. This pattern recognition ability has been naturally selected because it gives us a distinct survival advantage, but the thinking is that the price we pay for this is that it will also yield false positives and derive patterns out of random noise. It has previously been assumed by many psychologists that this is the mechanism that leads some to embrace conspiracy theories, so the authors of this news study systematically tested the idea.

The study entitled “Connecting the dots: Illusory pattern perception predicts belief in conspiracies and the supernatural” is available here.

I’ve gleaned a few details from the paper. To make the text a bit more readable, I’ve stripped out the references they make to other research papers. That makes it flow a bit better. If interested in the actual referenced research, then the paper lists it all.

I’ve also only really scratched the surface here. If a deeper understanding this is of interest, then reading the paper itself may be your best option. It is mostly quite readable, but if statistics are not your thing, then skipping over some bits and just skimming it can also yield a good insight into it all.

Pattern Recognition

it enables people to recognize basic patterns that are real, and that are important to internalize (e.g., a red traffic light signals danger; drinking water quenches one’s thirst; being unfriendly to a stranger may elicit an un-friendly response). 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.

… a random process often generates sequences that appear non random to the human mind …

Skinner’s Pigeons
It is not just us, Pigeons also see false pattens as well, and respond to them …

In a classic study by Skinner, 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”

Making Sense of Random chaos

belief in conspiracy theories often constitutes attempts to understand distressing events that are difficult to understand otherwise. Consistently,impactful and threatening societal events increase people’s sense-making motivation – as reflected in feelings of worry and a desire to find out what happened — which subsequently increases belief in conspiracy theories. In a similar vein, supernatural beliefs help people to make sense of their life and to predict the future. Supernatural beliefs have been argued to imbue the world with meaning and purpose, and therefore help people cope with the basic uncertainties that are inherent to life. These arguments suggest that irrational beliefs help people make sense of their worldby increasing a subjective sense of predictability, and pattern perception is a key element of this process.

.. The desire to make sense of the world is of particular importance to people when they lack control or when they are uncertain. Consistently, empirical findings reveal that people are particularly likely to believe conspiracy theories when they lack control or are uncertain. Likewise, lacking control or experiencing feelings of uncertainty have been found to increase supernatural beliefs, in the form of superstition, belief in horoscopes, and increased religiosity. These findings are consistent with the idea that irrational beliefs are rooted in pattern perception.

So what does this new study bring to the table?

our aim was to expand on these insights through a program of research designed to test the assertion that irrational beliefs—both in conspiracies and the supernatural are empirically connected with a tendency to perceive patterns in randomly generated stimuli.

we conducted five studies in which we focused on the relationship between irrational beliefs and illusory pattern perception

The Studies

Study 1 – The coin toss

They looked to see if participants detected patterns in random coin toss outcomes, and then tested the correlations of such pattern perception with irrational beliefs.

This is what they found:

Perceiving patterns in randomly generated coin toss outcomes was significantly correlated with both measures of conspiracy beliefs, and with supernatural belief

Study 2

They used the random coin toss from the first study and randomly asked (or did not ask) participants to look for patterns in order to predict the outcome of the next toss.

Why?

Well, because they …

predicted that searching for patterns in random sequences would increase irrational beliefs through an increase in pattern perception

This is what they found:

we found that the pattern perception measure was significantly correlated with belief in existing conspiracy theories, belief in fictitious conspiracy theories, and magical ideation

Study 3

Studies 1 and 2 lead naturally to a question: is it specifically perception of patterns in random or chaotic stimuli that predict irrational beliefs or does the perception of real patterns also play a part?

To answer that they turned to modern art as follows …

If general pattern perception (i.e., regardless of whether they are real or illusory patterns) predicts irrational beliefs, then such beliefs should increase to the extent that people perceive patterns more clearly. Alternatively, if illusory pattern perception predicts irrational beliefs, then only perceiving patterns in chaotic paintings should be associated with such beliefs, not detecting the existing patterns in the structured paintings

This is what they found:

only perceiving patterns in random or chaotic stimuli (i.e., illusory pattern perception) predicts irrational beliefs, and not recognizing patterns in structured stimuli. Belief in conspiracy theories was unrelated to perception of these existing patterns, and supernatural beliefs even predicted a decreased capacity to recognize existing patterns

Study 4

In previous studies they manipulated pattern perception and looked to see if that predicted beliefs. For this study they flipped that around and measured beliefs to see if that predicted pattern perception.

They asked participants to read a short text written by a paranormal believer, a conspiracy theorist, or a skeptic. They specifically tested whether participants’ agreement with the paranormal and conspiracy texts, but not their agreement with the skeptic text, predicted their tendency to perceive patterns.

This is what they found:

Agreement with the paranormal blog correlated positively with pattern perception (patterns in life; patterns in paintings; patterns in coin tosses), as did agreement with the conspiracy theory blog (patterns in life; patterns in paintings; patterns in coin tosses). Agreement with the skeptic blog, however, correlated negatively with patterns in life and patterns in coin tosses, and did not correlate with patterns in paintings

Study 5

In Study 5, they examined whether pattern perception constitutes an explanation for the frequently observed relationships between conceptually unrelated irrational beliefs. 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

They got participants to read an Internet excerpt either underscoring or undermining the validity of a specific conspiracy theory by presenting focused arguments. They predicted that this conspiracy theory manipulation would increase the extent to which people generally believe events in the world to be somehow related (i.e., pattern perception of world events), which in turn predicts conceptually unrelated conspiracy beliefs and supernatural beliefs

This is what they found:

These results support the idea that conspiracy theorizing increases the perception of patterns in world events

Bottom Line

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. The role of illusory pattern perception has frequently been suggested as a core process underlying irrational beliefs, but any actual evidence for this did not exist.

This study now changes that …

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

Further Reading

There is a good review of the study on the NeuroLogica Blog.

The full study is available here.


Leave a Reply

2 thoughts on “Why do people believe Conspiracy Theories?

  • sdemetri

    The link to the blog at the bottom of this post sums up in the following statement what might be the most critical thing that should be held close in thinking why people draw conclusions both true and false from what they observe in the world:

    “If you combine the tendency to see patterns with the tendency to assume agency – you have the makings of conspiracy theories.

    But this is not the whole story. While we may tend to see illusory patterns and assume agency, we are also endowed with logic and critical thinking. These are also skills that need to be taught and practiced. They give us the ability to evaluate apparent patterns and determine if they are real.”

    This is a pretty good description of the faculties that lead anyone engaged in a scientific inquiry where observable phenomena is under scrutiny to test the “illusory patterns” that appear in what they study, critical thinking and logic. There are certainly techniques at hand to experts in their fields to apply to determine whether the patterns they see are meaningful or an illusion, deceiving. Critical thinking and logic are the essential components of inquiry whether people are studying climate change or cancer medicine. The models developed without rigorous critical thinking and logic are prone to lead folks down garden paths that might seem correct but end up as blind alleys. How much of science has been subject to this very thing? I’d say a great deal of it, and thankfully. Failure to explain something focuses the mind. How much of our understanding of history has been subject to determined efforts to hide the facts of events obscuring our understanding of those events?

    The public demonstration of the simulation (or the attempt to analyze and model the pattern observed in this building collapse) concerning the destruction of WTC7 on 9/11/2001 is a case where the modeling that is put forward for public consumption is a means to influence belief in the general public that the building came down because of fire, nothing else, but really demonstrates much more.

    First, selective release by NIST of the data and parameters that underpin their simulation allows those distributing the output to create what amounts to a cartoon version of events that is beyond analysis. Without knowing the specific data and parameters that created the simulation, the output is beyond applying critical thinking skills and logic to to ascertain whether the cartoon version is true or illusory. (In this case the minutiae of the data and parameters not released by NIST is somewhat beside the point. I’ll get to that below.)

    Second, denying independent analysis of the data and parameters as NIST has done gives the creator the power to create illusion. It creates the need for blind faith and, once that faith is adopted, is a perfect vehicle to create, support, or even hide a conspiracy theory in plain sight.

    In the case of WTC7, the simulation shows a single column being pushed off of its base by deformation of other columns due to thermal expansion from fire. It is left to observers of the simulation to believe that this single column failure, without explaining how or why, through a series of progressive column failures resulted in the straight down, symmetrical, free fall collapse of the building. This is especially remarkable for the following reason.

    The simulation shows the supposed initial column failures but then the simulation deviates wildly from the observed event, and is ended suddenly before the main collapse initiates. The simulation progresses into wild deformation of the lower building bearing no resemblance to the observable facts: the straight down, symmetrical, de facto free fall acceleration for about 2.25 secs.*

    Again, the data and parameters that created this cartoon version of events have not been publicly available for independent critical analysis to explain this deviation between the model and the reality. The beginning of the simulation can be believable because movement in the building did occur, but that the model wildly deviates from reality as it progresses indicates the data and parameters used to create the model are flawed, or else the algorithms that use the data are flawed. Without having access to either the data and parameters or the algorithms it is impossible to know. The model deviates from reality in a big way, that is clear, but regardless the simulation is offered as demonstrating a plausible reality, one that cannot be tested.

    Analysis of video footage of the collapse pinpoints the exact moment the roofline begins to fall, and records the immediate transition from zero acceleration to free fall acceleration. The simulation models behaviors of the building in nearly complete disagreement with the observable event. A simulation created from the logical assumption that controlled demolition creates the type of building collapse that was observed, — symmetrical, immediate initiation, straight down at free fall acceleration — was not performed nor offered.

    Critical thinking and logic don’t support the conclusion that fire brought down WTC7 in the same manner a controlled demolition would have. A conspiracy theory that fire, not controlled demolition, caused the collapse of WTC7 and apparently no amount of critical thinking and logic is able to dislodge this illusion from those who need this version of these events to be widely adopted for themselves or for the larger public.

    Recognizing the pattern of destruction of known controlled demolitions and the similarities WTC7 shows to that pattern was not disproved by the simulation presented by NIST. What they hope people will believe is the illusion their model creates, supported by the handwaving and obfuscation of the many others parts of the official conspiracy theory explaining these events.

    *Chapter 12, pg 602 of the pdf (http://ws680.nist.gov/publication/get_pdf.cfm?pub_id=861611) contains the statements:

    “The slope of the straight line, which represents a constant acceleration, was found to be 32.2 ft/s2 (with a coefficient of regression R2 = 0.991), equivalent to the acceleration of gravity g. “

    Further described a little later, “In Stage 2, the north face descended at gravitational acceleration, as exterior column buckling progressed and the columns provided negligible support to the upper portion of the north face. This free fall drop continued for approximately 8 stories (105 ft), the distance traveled between times t = 1.75 s and t = 4.0 s.”

    NIST had to acknowledge free fall acceleration of WTC7 when challenged to recognize the observation by an independent physics teacher. NIST doesn’t acknowledge what the observed event shows however, that the entire roofline and not simply “the north face” descended at free fall acceleration.

    NIST failed to include the implications of free fall acceleration when drawing the conclusions they did as to progressive column failures due to fire as the cause. Their model did not include, apparently, the observed free fall acceleration data.

  • sdemetri

    The link to the blog at the bottom of this post sums up in the following statement what might be the most critical thing that should be held close in thinking why people draw conclusions both true and false from what they observe in the world:

    “If you combine the tendency to see patterns with the tendency to assume agency – you have the makings of conspiracy theories.

    But this is not the whole story. While we may tend to see illusory patterns and assume agency, we are also endowed with logic and critical thinking. These are also skills that need to be taught and practiced. They give us the ability to evaluate apparent patterns and determine if they are real.”

    This is a pretty good description of the faculties that lead anyone engaged in a scientific inquiry where observable phenomena is under scrutiny to test the “illusory patterns” that appear in what they study, critical thinking and logic. There are certainly techniques at hand to experts in their fields to apply to determine whether the patterns they see are meaningful or an illusion, deceiving. Critical thinking and logic are the essential components of inquiry whether people are studying climate change or cancer medicine. The models developed without rigorous critical thinking and logic are prone to lead folks down garden paths that might seem correct but end up as blind alleys. How much of science has been subject to this very thing? I’d say a great deal of it, and thankfully. Failure to explain something focuses the mind. How much of our understanding of history has been subject to determined efforts to hide the facts of events obscuring our understanding of those events?

    The public demonstration of the simulation (or the attempt to analyze and model the pattern observed in this building collapse) concerning the destruction of WTC7 on 9/11/2001 is a case where the modeling that is put forward for public consumption is a means to influence belief in the general public that the building came down because of fire, nothing else, but really demonstrates much more.

    First, selective release by NIST of the data and parameters that underpin their simulation allows those distributing the output to create what amounts to a cartoon version of events that is beyond analysis. Without knowing the specific data and parameters that created the simulation, the output is beyond applying critical thinking skills and logic to to ascertain whether the cartoon version is true or illusory. (In this case the minutiae of the data and parameters not released by NIST is somewhat beside the point. I’ll get to that below.)

    Second, denying independent analysis of the data and parameters as NIST has done gives the creator the power to create illusion. It creates the need for blind faith and, once that faith is adopted, is a perfect vehicle to create, support, or even hide a conspiracy theory in plain sight.

    In the case of WTC7, the simulation shows a single column being pushed off of its base by deformation of other columns due to thermal expansion from fire. It is left to observers of the simulation to believe that this single column failure, without explaining how or why, through a series of progressive column failures resulted in the straight down, symmetrical, free fall collapse of the building. This is especially remarkable for the following reason.

    The simulation shows the supposed initial column failures but then the simulation deviates wildly from the observed event, and is ended suddenly before the main collapse initiates. The simulation progresses into wild deformation of the lower building bearing no resemblance to the observable facts: the straight down, symmetrical, de facto free fall acceleration for about 2.25 secs.

    Again, the data and parameters that created this cartoon version of events have not been publicly available for independent critical analysis to explain this deviation between the model and the reality. The beginning of the simulation can be believable because movement in the building did occur, but that the model wildly deviates from reality as it progresses indicates the data and parameters used to create the model are flawed, or else the algorithms that use the data are flawed. Without having access to either the data and parameters or the algorithms it is impossible to know. The model deviates from reality in a big way, that is clear, but regardless the simulation is offered as demonstrating a plausible reality, one that cannot be tested.

    Analysis of video footage of the collapse pinpoints the exact moment the roofline begins to fall, and records the immediate transition from zero acceleration to free fall acceleration. The simulation models behaviors of the building in nearly complete disagreement with the observable event. A simulation created from the logical assumption that controlled demolition creates the type of building collapse that was observed, — symmetrical, immediate initiation, straight down at free fall acceleration — was not performed nor offered.

    Critical thinking and logic don’t support the conclusion that fire brought down WTC7 in the same manner a controlled demolition would have. A conspiracy theory that fire, not controlled demolition, caused the collapse of WTC7 and apparently no amount of critical thinking and logic is able to dislodge this illusion from those who need this version of these events to be widely adopted for themselves or for the larger public.

    Recognizing the pattern of destruction of known controlled demolitions and the similarities WTC7 shows to that pattern was not disproved by the simulation presented by NIST. What they hope people will believe is the illusion their model creates, supported by the handwaving and obfuscation of the many others parts of the official conspiracy theory explaining these events.