Conspiracy Theorists Aren’t So Different From the Rest of Us

Researchers discover that conspiracy theorists are no more or less likely to find patterns in random noise, suggesting there’s more to the phenomenon than just a need for order and control.

By Nathan Collins (Pacific Standard)

Conspiracy theories persist around the assassination of John F. Kennedy. (Photo: Victor Hugo King/Wikimedia Commons)
Conspiracy theories persist around the assassination of John F. Kennedy. (Photo: Victor Hugo King/Wikimedia Commons)

Where there’s tragedy, conspiracy theories are sure to follow, a phenomenon that rests in part on a need for order and a strong distaste for randomness in the world around us—hence, the argument goes, the need to explain every little detail in the wake of an attack or a scandal. But, a new paper argues, the need for order and control might not be so deep seated—it turns out believers are just as likely to find a signal in the noise as the rest of us.

According to research published last year, half of Americans believe at least one conspiracy theory, though there are a number of contributing factors behind these convictions. One is what psychologists call motivated reasoning—for example, those who believe in free markets are more likely to dismiss the science behind climate change, since accepting it might mean they’d have to change their ways.

Suspicions of secret conspiracies reside in higher-order processes, such as motivated reasoning.

Another clue lies in the way conspiracy theorists seem to fixate on small details—such as the timing of a tweet following the murder of reporter Alison Parker, or an ID left at the scene of the attack on Charlie Hebdo—that don’t immediately make sense. That observation suggests believers might have an unusually powerful need to find order and patterns where there aren’t any, perhaps to the point that they would be more likely than others to find patterns in random events. The question is: How deep seated is that need?

Actually, not so deep seated at all, argue Sebastian Dieguez, Pascal Wagner-Egger, and Nicolas Gauvrit in a paper published Monday in Psychological Science. To put the “nothing happens without a reason” hypothesis to the test, the researchers looked for whether ordinary folks and conspiracy theorists would find patterns in actual randomness—specifically, randomly generated sequences of X’s and O’s, such as XXOXOXOOXOXX. Across three experiments, the researchers showed 437 participants 40 such strings and asked them to rate whether it was generated at random or not. Afterwards, each participant took a survey designed to measure how strongly they believed the Apollo moon landings were faked, 9/11 was an inside job, and other theories of government cover ups.

Despite a seeming need to find order in the universe, those who ranked high on the conspiracy-theory scale were no more (or less) likely to find patterns in sequences of X’s and O’s compared with others. In one version of the experiment, the researchers told participants that the X’s and O’s were the results of coin flips in a game of chance played for money—making explicit the possibility that someone was cheating. Even then, conspiracy believers acted no differently from others.

Those results, the team writes, suggest that if conspiracy theorists think everything happens for a reason—and hence that every detail matters—it’s not a belief that runs deep. Instead, suspicions of secret conspiracies reside in higher-order processes, such as motivated reasoning.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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