Connecting the dots: Illusory pattern perception predicts belief in conspiracies and the supernatural

Jan Willem van Prooijen, Karen M. Douglas, Clara De Inocencio

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review

Abstract

A common assumption is that belief in conspiracy theories and supernatural phenomena are grounded in illusory pattern perception. In the present research we systematically tested this assumption. Study 1 revealed that such irrational beliefs are related to perceiving patterns in randomly generated coin toss outcomes. In Study 2, pattern search instructions exerted an indirect effect on irrational beliefs through pattern perception. Study 3 revealed that perceiving patterns in chaotic but not in structured paintings predicted irrational beliefs. In Study 4, we found that agreement with texts supporting paranormal phenomena or conspiracy theories predicted pattern perception. In Study 5, we manipulated belief in a specific conspiracy theory. This manipulation influenced the extent to which people perceive patterns in world events, which in turn predicted unrelated irrational beliefs. We conclude that illusory pattern perception is a central cognitive mechanism accounting for conspiracy theories and supernatural beliefs.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)320-335
Number of pages16
JournalEuropean Journal of Social Psychology
Volume48
Issue number3
Early online date21 Aug 2017
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2018

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Keywords

  • conspiracy beliefs
  • Illusory pattern perception
  • irrational beliefs
  • supernatural beliefs

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abstract = "A common assumption is that belief in conspiracy theories and supernatural phenomena are grounded in illusory pattern perception. In the present research we systematically tested this assumption. Study 1 revealed that such irrational beliefs are related to perceiving patterns in randomly generated coin toss outcomes. In Study 2, pattern search instructions exerted an indirect effect on irrational beliefs through pattern perception. Study 3 revealed that perceiving patterns in chaotic but not in structured paintings predicted irrational beliefs. In Study 4, we found that agreement with texts supporting paranormal phenomena or conspiracy theories predicted pattern perception. In Study 5, we manipulated belief in a specific conspiracy theory. This manipulation influenced the extent to which people perceive patterns in world events, which in turn predicted unrelated irrational beliefs. We conclude that illusory pattern perception is a central cognitive mechanism accounting for conspiracy theories and supernatural beliefs.",
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Connecting the dots : Illusory pattern perception predicts belief in conspiracies and the supernatural. / van Prooijen, Jan Willem; Douglas, Karen M.; De Inocencio, Clara.

In: European Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 48, No. 3, 04.2018, p. 320-335.

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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