Pattern Recognition: The Science Behind Conspiracy Theories

From a lecture series presented by Professor Steven Novella M.D.

Why do we give into conspiracy theories? Conspiracy thinking is like pareidolia; the tendency of our brain to impose patterns on random data, such as an image in an ink blot or a cloud.

image of conspiracy theory text in woodblocks

Imposing Patterns on Random Data

Essentially conspiracy theorists connect the dots and see an invisible hand operating behind the scenes. Pattern recognition is enhanced when people feel powerlessness, supporting the notion that conspiracy theories, in part, serve this emotional need. Even visual pareidolia becomes more likely in research scenarios where subjects are made to feel more powerless.

Learn more: The Trap of Grand Conspiracy Thinking

Cognitive Traps

There are various cognitive traps that conspiracy thinking falls into. One is confirmation bias; the tendency to favor evidence that confirms what we believe and ignore or dismiss evidence that contradicts the illusion. The bits of evidence that can be cast in a sinister light are elevated to support the conspiracy, while contradictions are ignored, bypassing the reality testing filter.  Everything can seem as if it’s part of a conspiracy.

Conspiracy theorists often commit what is called the fundamental attribution error, the tendency to blame other people’s behavior on internal rather than situational factors. The conspiracy theorist tends to think that all actions and outcomes are deliberate and intended, nothing is a coincidence, and nothing happens by chance. They do not recognize that people may be innocently responding to the situation rather than deliberately orchestrating events in every detail.

Conspiracy theorists often commit what is called the fundamental attribution error, the tendency to blame other people’s behavior on internal rather than situational factors.

For these reasons and others, the conspiracy theory becomes immune to refutation. This major cognitive flaw is what we call a closed belief system. All evidence that could prove the conspiracy to be false becomes part of the conspiracy itself. For example, any evidence that links Oswald to the J.F.K. assassination, including the gun that he used, the bullet recovered from Connally’s stretcher, and the picture of Oswald with the gun before the assassination, could be seen to have been planted to frame Oswald.

Any evidence that is lacking for the conspiracy can be claimed to have been removed or covered up by the conspirators. The “Men in Black” movies provide another example of a vast cover-up, with the shadow organization erasing all evidence of the existence of aliens on Earth. 

They are also immune to any burden of proof. The burden of proof should fall upon the one who makes the claim. Shifting this burden onto others is a common logical fallacy employed to maintain a belief that lacks evidence. They challenge others to prove them wrong rather than providing proof themselves. When challenged, no matter how much evidence is provided counter to their interpretation of events, it is never enough, as the goalpost is simply moved farther away. For example, unless every quirky little detail of the events of 9/11 can be explained to an arbitrary level of detail, conspiracy theorists can claim that there are still holes in the standard explanation and those holes are explained by the conspiracy.

Learn more: How Much Evidence Do We Need?

Portrait of scheming young woman plotting something

Anomaly Hunting

Anomaly hunting seeks anything that defies an immediate or obvious explanation, and can, therefore, be used to claim that there are holes in the standard explanation without having to provide any evidence of a specific conspiracy.

If you take any complex historical event such as the Lincoln assassination, the J.F.K. assassination, or the events of 9/11, there will be many anomalous details. And when the universe of possibilities is large, coincidences are inevitable. The quirky little events of everyday life, such as having a cold, or waking up late can always play a part in a larger event. And these inevitable anomalies can always be cast a sinister light to invent a conspiracy.

Anomaly hunting seeks anything that defies an immediate or obvious explanation, and can, therefore, be used to claim that there are holes in the standard explanation without having to provide any evidence of a specific conspiracy.

Anomaly hunting is often combined with naïve assumptions about how things should happen. For example, what should the debris field look like after a large commercial jet crashes into a reinforced building like the Pentagon? It’s naïve to assume that we can know with any detail what precisely would result from an event we have never observed, and are not always intuitive. But 9/11 conspiracy theorists believe that the debris field is entirely predictable, and anything that doesn’t fit their predictions is an anomaly that falsifies the standard explanation.

A false dichotomy is created when this falsification of the standard explanation is used as proof that the conspiracy is correct. This is a false choice. Even true errors in a standard explanation do not prove the truth of an alternative. But since they have shifted away from the burden of proof, all they must do is find anomalies in the standard story and then use the false dichotomy to replace it with their conspiracy.

Learn more: Culture and Mass Delusions

Intentional Conspiracies

Front page of Roswell Daily Record, July 8, 1947
Roswell Daily Record, July 8, 1947

Let’s take the events surrounding what UFO conspiracy theorists claim is a U.S. government-sponsored cover-up of a flying saucer that crashed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. To some, evidence of a cover-up is proof of aliens visiting the Earth.

The U.S. government was engaged in a cover-up surrounding a crash in Roswell in 1947. However, what they were hiding was Project Mogul, a secret program to spy on Soviet nuclear weapons testing. So the standard explanation that a simple weather balloon with a corner reflector had crashed was a fabrication covering up a cold war spy program. However, the cover-up doesn’t necessarily prove the existence of a crashed alien spaceship.

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Conspiracy theorists tend to widen the conspiracy as another mechanism that renders a conspiracy immune to contradictory evidence. For example, some conspiracy theorists believe that there was a massive U.S.-sponsored conspiracy responsible for the events of 9/11, which then expands to raise additional questions. One conspiracy theory states that it was a U.S. missile that hit the Pentagon, and not Flight 77. If Flight 77 never crashed into the Pentagon what happened to it and everyone on board?

They say that no airplane wreckage was found. So, the military and civilian trackers of the plane, both foreign and domestic must have been in on it. If the attack was planned by the Bush administration, how come the liberal-leaning media have not exposed this conspiracy? And why did the Democrats, who controlled both houses of Congress and were no friends of Bush, never launch an investigation to reveal the administration’s involvement? So, the conspiracy is vast, involving both political parties and the media as well. The conspiracy grows and grows as widening the conspiracy is used to answer any of the implications of such a large conspiracy.

Learn more: September 11 & Its Aftermath

Eventually, the power and resources required for the conspirators to pull off such a colossal event provide proof of a world-spanning shadow government with their hands in everything. If, for example, the U.S. never really landed astronauts on the moon then why didn’t the Soviet Union call us on it? They certainly could’ve tracked our rockets.

Well, they must’ve been on it as well and what are the implications of the U.S. and the Soviet Union both being on the same conspiracy during the Cold War. The number of people and organizations that would need to be involved becomes far too great to be plausible. When plausibility cannot be maintained with the grand conspiracy theory, it collapses under its own weight.

Keep Reading:
What are the dangers of conspiracy theories?
Debate: Should Scientifically Predicted Criminals Be Prematurely Jailed?
Ethics: How Do You Know Right from Wrong?

From the Lecture Series: Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills
Taught by Professor Steven Novella, M.D.