Oct 23 2017

Conspiracy Thinking and Pattern Recognition

conspiracy thinking1Humans are conspiracy theorists. Seeing and believing in conspiracies appears to be a fundamental part of how our minds work. Psychologists are trying to understand rigorously exactly why this is, and what factors predict a tendency to believe in conspiracies.

A recent study adds to those that link conspiracy thinking with pattern recognition. The researchers did a series of experiments in which they showed that the belief in one or more conspiracies correlates with the tendency to see patterns in random data, such as random coin tosses or noisy pictures. Further, when subjects read about one conspiracy theory they were then slightly more likely to endorse other conspiracy theories and to see patterns in random noise.

They conclude:

We conclude that illusory pattern perception is a central cognitive mechanism accounting for conspiracy theories and supernatural beliefs.”

This makes sense, which is why psychologists have been studying it in the first place. First, we know that people in general have a tendency to see patterns in randomness. That is part of how our brains make sense of the world. Essentially, we are bombarded with various sensory streams. Our brains parse those streams as best it can, filtering out noise and distraction, and then searching for familiar patterns. When it finds a possible match it then processes the information to make the perceived pattern more apparent. That pattern is then what we perceive.

That is important to understand – your perception actually changes, not just your interpretation of it, and this change is subconscious. When your brain encounters speech-like noise, it tries to find the best match, and then those are the words you hear. This process is also affected by visual cues (literally reading lips) and highly susceptible to suggestion. (e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIwrgAnx6Q8)

The same is true visually. Your brain connects the apparent dots, fills in missing information, enhances some lines and glosses over others, and constructs a three-dimensional interpretation out of two-dimensional cues.

So, the thinking went, perhaps we do the same thing cognitively – we take bits of information and look for connections, for an underlying pattern that makes sense of it all. We then fill in the gaps with speculation about how it all fits together.

Not only does this process fit our massively parallel pattern-seeking brain function, it can be highly adaptive. Especially in a complex social species, being able to anticipate possible threats, or notice when others are working against your interests, would be highly advantageous.

In addition it seems as if we have a tendency to err on the side of seeing patterns, even ones that are illusory – that are not really there. We see faces in clouds or in NASA photos of Mars.

A distinct but related phenomenon is called hyperactive agency detection. We tend to assume that things happen for a reason, that there is a deliberate agent behind events. When, for example, we see the bushes shaking we assume it is a predator rather than the wind.

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.

And again, it’s easy to make sense of this. If you had to design a machine that had the task of finding all real patterns, but only real patterns, how would you do that? This is a “sensitivity vs specificity” issue that all diagnostic tests face. The more sensitive your detection equipment is the more patterns you will find, but the more false positives you will have also. If you dial back the false positives, then you lose some true positives.

One way to solve this dilemma is to have a two-step process. The first step is highly sensitive, it finds all possible patterns even though this results in detecting many false patterns. But then there is a second highly specific filter in which you remove the false positives. You are then left with all the true positives.

Our hyperactive pattern recognition is the first step – we are highly sensitive to any possible pattern. Our logic and critical thinking is the second step – we evaluate possible patterns to see if they are likely to be real. Do the patterns make sense, are they plausible, are they independently verified?

The burning question for psychologists is this – do people who have a heightened tendency to believe in conspiracy theories have increased pattern recognition, decreased critical thinking filters, or both? In psychology the usual answer to such questions is, yes. People are variable, and we are likely to see every permutation.

What this and other studies document is that people who tend to believe in conspiracies have a greater tendency to detect patterns in the first place. This probably does not entirely explain conspiracy thinking, but it is part.

Further, the tendency to see conspiracies is not entirely a fixed personality feature. It seems to be modifiable by situational factors. This and other studies suggest that believing in one conspiracy makes someone more susceptible to believing in others. Conspiracy thinking also increases when someone feels threatened or insecure, so it is partly a protective mechanism. And conspiracy thinking can be moderated by teaching critical thinking skills – by being more skeptical.

The critical thinking component is the most modifiable variable. This can actually be taught. Basic scientific literacy helps also as it is useful for the reality filter.

None of this means there aren’t real conspiracies out there. There are (although not the “grand” type of conspiracies favored by fanatics), but we need to filter out the fake ones to find them.

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