Myth Busted: Conspiracy Theorists Do Believe Stuff 'Just Happens'

Buzz Aldrin salutes the U.S. flag on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969.
Buzz Aldrin salutes the U.S. flag on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969. (Image credit: NASA)

The sheriff of Douglas County in Oregon where a mass shooting occurred on Oct. 2 is in hot water after the discovery that he posted a "Sandy Hook truther" video to Facebook in 2013. Now, a new study casts doubt on the psychology blamed for belief in such conspiracy theories.

Contrary to popular opinion, the research finds, people who think conspiratorially aren't more likely to assume everything happens for a reason, rejecting the likelihood of random chance, than people who don't hold conspiracy beliefs.

"What we show is that the psychology of conspiracy theories is located in a rather high level of cognition, perhaps at the level of beliefs and ideology and not at the level of a deeper personality or perception mode," said study researcher Sebastian Dieguez, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. [Top 10 Conspiracy Theories]

The spread of conspiracies

In the Sandy Hook shooting, 20 children and six adults were killed at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Almost immediately after the news broke, conspiracy theorists, some calling themselves Sandy Hook truthers, began claiming that the shooting never really happened, and that the supposed bereaved parents were hired actors. Similar conspiracy theories have sprouted up over other high-profile shootings, including the August on-air killing of a television reporter and cameraman in Virginia and the October shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon.

A common theory for why people believe in these sorts of conspiracies is that they can't accept that, sometimes, bad things happen for no good reason. In other words, they're primed to see patterns everywhere — and, in fact, find it comforting to think that someone's in charge when tragedy strikes.

A few indirect studies bolstered this notion, including a 2008 study showing that people who felt they had less control were more likely to believe in conspiracies than people who felt more in control of their lives. But no one had ever tested the link between a rejection of randomness and conspiracy belief directly, Dieguez told Live Science.

"It was not clear whether 'nothing happens by accident' is something conspiracy believers say or whether it's how they think," he said. "That's what we wanted to test, whether this is a rather deep psychological disposition they have."

Accepting randomness

The researchers conducted three very similar studies in which they asked participants to look at randomly generated strings of X's and O's and gauge how "truly random" each was. In two of the experiments, participants were told that they were on the hunt for a cheater who was supposed to write down the results of a coin flip, but just wrote results without actually flipping the coin. In one experiment, the X's and O's were presented without any suggestion of human intentionality behind them.

The first two experiments involved 107 and 123 psychology students, respectively, and the third involved 217 French speakers recruited online. Each participant filled out a survey about their conspiracy beliefs, which they were told was part of a separate study.

Then the researchers looked for a link between people's perceptions of randomness and their conspiratorial mindset. They found nothing.  

"This finding, although it's a negative finding, was actually pretty interesting, because in our study we had very strong findings [otherwise]," Dieguez said. "Pretty much everything worked except the main hypothesis that we wanted to test."

Complex conspiracies

The researchers found that people are actually quite good at detecting random-seeming character strings (as determined by a mathematical algorithm). They also found something that other scientists have noted, which is that people who believe in one conspiracy theory tend to believe in many conspiracy theories, even those that have nothing to do with each other (or even contradict one another). Someone who believes the moon landing was faked, for example, is likely to believe that Princess Diana was deliberately murdered.

But the researchers couldn't find evidence that a deep-seated need to see patterns is linked to conspiracy beliefs. [10 Persistent Kennedy Assassination Theories]

Other modes of thought have been linked to the conspiratorial mindset. Anxiety is one. "Anomia," feelings of powerlessness and distrust, is another. People who believe in conspiracies also seem prey to the conjunction fallacy, which is a cognitive "oops" that involves believing that a more specific thing is more likely than a general one. This bias was illustrated in a 1974 paper with the "Linda problem," which describes a 31-year-old single woman interested in social justice and anti-nuclear protests. It then asks whether it's more likely that a) Linda is a bank teller, or b) Linda is a bank teller and an active feminist.

Mathematically, it has got to be more likely that A is truer than B. There is always a greater likelihood that one thing will happen than that two independent things will happen. If, for example, there's a 1 in 10 chance that Linda is a bank teller, A has a 10 percent chance of being true. If there's also a 5 in 10 chance that Linda is a feminist, the likelihood that she is a bank teller as well is 5/10 times 1/10, or 5/100 — only a 5 percent chance. But because B seems more descriptive of a person like Linda, people often fall prey to thinking B is more likely than A.

Ultimately, the new research — published Sept. 21 in the journal Psychological Science — suggests that conspiracy thoughts are complex and subject to outside factors, Dieguez said.

"It shows that, well, perhaps conspiracy theories are really associated with ideology, with our worldview, and not really to more basic cognitive factors," he said.

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.