Quirks & Quarks

Why conspiracy theorists are more likely to see patterns in a painting like this

Belief in conspiracy theories based in ‘illusory pattern perception.’
The more strongly research subjects said they saw patterns in abstract paintings like this Jackson Pollock one, the more likely they were to also believe in conspiracy theories. (Carl Court/Getty)

You know that uncle, or maybe she's a friend on Facebook? You bring up the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and that person goes off the rails. You then spend the next five to 10 minutes listening to how the U.S. terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 were an inside job.

Conspiracy theories have permeated from the fringes to many parts of society. They may have even played a role in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election with the Russian Facebook ads. How is it some people can see the world so differently? New research by Dr. Jan-Willem van Prooijen, an associate professor in social psychology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands and author of the upcoming book, Psychology of Conspiracy Theories, suggests it has to do with something called, "illusory pattern perception." 

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity

Bob McDonald: Take me inside the mind of someone who believes in conspiracy theories. How can they be convinced of their theories despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary?

Dr. Jan-Willem van Prooijen: People who believe conspiracy theories tend to see connections that others don't. They're tuned in to what we call "patterns" in psychology. For instance, a conspiracy theorist would see a causal relationship between the 9/11 towers falling down and the possibility of explosives hidden in the buildings. That's how they think.

BM: Now is there an evolutionary purpose to our ability to see connections like that?

JP: Yes. The ability to see connections is actually very useful. We all see connections in our everyday life because there's a lot of cause and effect there. For instance, we wouldn't survive a day in traffic if we can't recognize that the metal thing that's coming towards us is a car that might kill us. So it's actually beneficial for us to learn how certain causes can lead to certain consequences. But other times, we make mistakes in that process when we see patterns that just aren't there.

The chemtrail conspiracy theory says the long-lasting trails left by planes consists of chemical or biological agents deliberately sprayed for unknown purposes undisclosed to the general public. (Pixabay)

BM: Can you give me some examples?

JP: I'll give you a common example in the literature on paranormal belief. You're thinking of an old friend and you suddenly receive a call from them. You can think that's a coincidence, but you can also think that the two events are connected and that your mind is influencing your friend to call you. That's an example of seeing a connection that's not there.

Our brains' natural tendency to seek patterns gets amplified when we are fearful and feel like we don't have control over situations.- Dr. Jan-Willem van Prooijen, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

BM: So what triggers a person to start looking for connections that may not be there?

JP: Negative emotions. Our brains' natural tendency to seek patterns gets amplified when we are fearful and feel like we don't have control over situations. We might start to see illusory patterns or connections that aren't there. So it makes sense for conspiracy theories to pop up when these major, fear-eliciting events like a terrorist attack or a natural disaster happens.

BM: In your study, how did those who believe in conspiracy theories perceive things differently than most people?

JP: We showed participants a range of abstract paintings in one of the tests from our study. On average, our participants didn't see much patterns in it. But we found those who did were more likely to also believe in conspiracy theories. So one's tendency to see patterns in a chaotic visual stimuli was a good predictor of whether or not they were likely to believe in conspiracy theories.

BM: It sounds a little bit like looking at clouds and seeing faces and animals in them.

JP: That's exactly it. It's about making connections in your mind that puts random stimuli together.That's what pattern perception is all about.

BM: OK. So if we all do that then what's different about the conspiracy theorists?

JP: Well there's a difference between seeing patterns that are real versus patterns that are illusory. People who are better at discriminating the two are less likely to believe in conspiracy theories.

BM: So what allows us to discriminate between the two?

JP: In my other research, which is not published yet, we find some evidence that this may have to with your thinking preference. So we have two groups of thinkers: intuitive and analytical. Intuitive thinkers use their gut feelings or instincts to process information, whereas analytical thinkers like to carefully think things through. We find that intuitive thinker are more more likely to perceive illusory patterns, whereas analytical thinkers are less likely to see these illusory patterns.

Conspiracy theorist and radio talk show host Alex Jones speaks during a rally in Cleveland, Ohio in support of Donald Trump during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. (Brooks Kraft/Getty Images)

BM: And yet many conspiracy theories, when you listen to them, they sound like they are being analytical... 

JP: It's true that many of these conspiracy theorists are actually quite analytical. But I do think that they actually start with an emotion, with a sense that something must be wrong. They then start rationalizing it and looking for evidence to support that emotion.

BM: What do you do when you come up with someone who has a conspiracy theory, like humans didn't land on the moon? How can you have a rational conversation with them?

JP: That's a very good question, and I think it depends on who you're dealing with. There are many people who are open to a conspiratorial explanation, but also open to a non-conspiratorial explanation. I think it's very possible to have a good conversation where you evaluate all the evidence. But if someone is highly convinced of a certain truth, like humans never landed on the moon and that's a fact and there's no other way around it, then I think it's very difficult to change their mind.

Paper in the journal European Journal of Social Psychology

(Alexandra Kazia/CBC)