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Full Title or Meme

What psychologists call Apophenia - the human tendency to see connections and patterns that are not really there—gives rise to conspiracy theories



In The Believing Brain (2011), Shermer wrote that humans have "the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency", which he called "agenticity".[1]

Pattern recognition

Pattern recognition is a cognitive process that involves retrieving information either from long-term, short-term or working memory and matching it with information from stimuli. However, there are three different ways in which this may happen and go wrong, resulting in apophenia.[2]

The Last Thing you Try

Why is it that the last thing your try always works? (No, really, some people think this!)

Skinner performed an experiment involved taking a hungry pigeon, placing it in a box and releasing a food pellet at a random time. The pigeon received a food pellet while performing some action; and so, rather than attributing the arrival of the pellet to randomness, it repeated its action, and continued to do so until another pellet fell. As the pigeon increased the number of times it performed the action, it gained the impression that it also increased the times it was "rewarded" with a pellet, although the release in fact remained entirely random.[3]


Wired published a piece on conspiricy theories by Ellis[4]

HUMANS ARE PATTERN seekers. It’s how we’ve always made sense of the world: Our ancestors wouldn’t have survived if they hadn’t realized that plants tend to flourish after rainfall or that sabertooth tigers tended to eat them. But sometimes we’re just a little too good at finding meaning in the noise, occasionally unable to separate real patterns from those of our own imagining. These days, your pattern matching skills will help you find Waldo, but they are also why celebrities’ faces keep popping up on tortillas. At their most paranoid and byzantine, these pattern-matching misfires are called conspiracy theories: unfounded, deeply held alternative explanations for how things are—often invoking some shadowy, malevolent force masterminding the coverup.

What's a conspiracy theory? It's an unfounded, deeply held alternative explanation for how things are—often invoking some shadowy, malevolent force masterminding the coverup.

Conspiracy theories thrive on the internet, but that’s certainly not where they were born. The Flat Earth Society has existed since the 1800s, and people have been speculating about which people are secretly living or dead at least since 68 AD, when Romans weren’t convinced their arsonist emperor Nero had actually committed suicide. But conspiracies and the digital world do mesh well, probably because they scratch similar itches in our not-quite-domesticated psyches. Internet culture runs on people sinking huge amounts of effort into obscure and seemingly pointless undertakings. And conspiracy theories are to people what an unsupervised toddler is to a bored border collie: It may not look quite like a sheep, but when you nip at its ankles, your brain sure feels like it’s doing its job. The combination of the endless internet and your pattern-hungry brain has managed to spread webs of red string farther than was ever before possible.

On the web, it’s often hard to distinguish real conspiracy theories from gleefully ironic acts of collective world building—and either way, speculating about which celebs are immortal vampires and which are secretly lizards is mostly harmless fun (and excellent meme fodder). But because many dark and usually racist pre-internet conspiracies have found new homes on the web, you’re always a digital hop and a skip from the mind-bending alternate universes controlled by many of the same people responsible for our fake news crisis.


  • Merriam Webster, 3rd International Dictionary. : the tendency to perceive a connection or meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things (such as objects or ideas)
  • Michael Shermer, Why Do We Need a Belief in God. (2011-08-19) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQO4y2bueAM&feature=BFa&list=PLCD25E214FF0BCD3B&index=2
  • Psychgology 24, Pattern Recognition and Your Brain. (2016-03-21) http://www.psychology24.org/pattern-recognition-and-your-brain/
  • Esther Inglis-Arkell, How pigeons get to be superstitious. http://io9.gizmodo.com/5746904/how-pigeons-get-to-be-superstitious
  • Emma Grey Ellis, Online Conspiracy Theories: the Wired Guide. (2018-05-18) https://www.wired.com/story/wired-guide-to-conspiracy-theories/