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TRIBE Member
People are fucked.

I wonder where the sicko shooter got rid of his laptop hard drive
People are fucking savage.

...and if he tossed that HD from the 32nd floor, it would have been in bits and pieces all over the ground below.

I’ve had a hell of a time recovering stuff from a drive that fell 32”.


TRIBE Member
Conspiracy Thinking and Pattern Recognition
Published by Steven Novella under Conspiracy Theories,Skepticism

Humans 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. )

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.


TRIBE Member
Conspiracy Thinking and Epistemology
Published by Steven Novella under Conspiracy Theories
Comments: 13

Just last week I discussed a study looking at the correlation between belief in conspiracy theories and hyperactive pattern recognition. The quick version is this – belief in false patterns (such as bizarre conspiracy theories) results from a tendency to detect false patterns and a lack of filtering out those detections. The question for psychologists is, how much of an increased tendency to believe grand conspiracies is due to increased pattern recognition and how much is due to impaired reality testing? My assumption would be that both are involved to varying degrees in different people. The study found that there is a correlation between conspiracy beliefs and pattern recognition – which supports that hypothesis, but does not refute the role of decreased reality testing or other variables, such as culture, ideology, and self-esteem.

This week I am going to discuss another recent study looking at belief in conspiracies and their correlation with beliefs about the nature of knowledge (epistemic beliefs). These researchers are focusing on the other end of the equation – the methods we use to assess knowledge and form beliefs, rather than the more basic function of perceiving patterns. They start with a helpful review of previous literature:

There is also some evidence that individuals’ styles of thinking can influence their willingness to accept claims lacking empirical evidence. Individuals who tend to see intentional agency behind every event are more likely to believe conspiracy theories, as are those who attribute extraordinary events to unseen forces or interpret events through the Manichean narrative of good versus evil. Those who mistrust authority, who are convinced that nothing is as it seems, and who lack control over their environment are also more predisposed to conspiracist ideation.​

Taken together you may look at these cognitive traits as a strategy or narrative for understanding the world, which can often be complex and overwhelming. There is an underlying assumption that dark forces are controlling events for their own nefarious purposes. Once that assumption is in place it can be a powerful lens through which everything is perceived, one that prevents its own refutation. The conspiracy lens twists logic back in on itself, forming a self-contained belief system immune to external validation or refutation.

For the current study the authors focus on epistemic beliefs – notions about the nature of knowledge itself. I found their results entirely unsurprising, as they are consistent with prior research into conspiracy thinking. The first factor they looked at was faith in intuition or facts. Do you trust your gut feelings about a subject, or would you set aside those feelings if the empirical evidence told a different story? Second they looked at the extent to which subjects believe facts are political vs objective.

They asked subjects to rank twelve statements on a scale of 1-5, four each probing their beliefs about the reliability of intuition, the need for evidence, and the political nature of facts. They also had them rank seven different conspiracy theories from 1 (definitely not true) to 9 (definitely true) and considered a rank of 6 or higher as belief in the conspiracy. On their list belief in a JFK assassination conspiracy ranked the highest, at 45.7% belief. The Apollo moon landing hoax was at the bottom at 15.3%. I was a bit surprised that almost a third, 30.7%, believe that a New World Order seeks to replace sovereign governments and rule the world.

As you can see in these scatter plots, belief in intuition, lack of need for evidence, and belief that facts are political all correlate with increased belief in conspiracy theories. There is also a tremendous amount of individual variability within these general trends.

For comparison they also correlated epistemic beliefs and misperceptions about political issues that are not specifically related to conspiracy theories. Specifically they look at belief in global warming, that vaccines cause autism, that Iraq had WMD prior to the war, and that Muslims are inherently violent. They also found a strong correlation, similar but not as strong as with conspiracy theories.

This is also not surprising, in part because these political beliefs incorporate conspiracy theories as well. The separation is not clean. Those who reject the scientific consensus on global warming justify that rejection by claiming there is a conspiracy of scientists and politicians to hoax the world for their own purposes. Antivaxers believe the medical profession and Big Pharma are conspiring to sell harmful vaccines.

The authors conclude:

We find that individuals who trust their intuition, putting more faith in their ability to use intuition to assess factual claims than in their conscious reasoning skills, are uniquely likely to exhibit conspiracist ideation. Those who maintain that beliefs must be in accord with available evidence, in contrast, are less likely to embrace conspiracy theories, and they are less likely to endorse other falsehoods, even on politically charged topics. Finally, those who view facts as inexorably shaped by politics and power are more prone to misperception than those who believe that truth transcends social context. These individual-difference measures are fairly stable over time. Although the influence of epistemic beliefs is sometimes conditioned on ideology, this is the exception; in most instances the two types of factors operate independent of one another.​

What I like about this study is that it focuses on factors that may be more amenable to education, rather than being deeply ingrained personality traits. Once again, education in science and critical thinking can give people the “conscious reasoning skills” to assess their own beliefs more thoroughly and critically.