News & Politics

Scientists Identify a Key Cognitive Error that Could Explain Why People Believe in Creationism and Conspiracy Theories

They hope that understanding these thought processes will empower us to avoid such errors in our thinking.

Photo Credit: Michelangelo

As absurd and patently false as it may be, the notorious Q Anon conspiracy theory has gained traction among a passionate portion of the United States in recent weeks and months. This should hardly be surprising given that the country elected Donald Trump, known widely for spinning racist conspiracy theories of President Barack Obama's place of birth.

But conspiracy theories are nothing new to American life. And according to new research, people may be susceptible to conspiracy theories — and other false ideologies like creationism — because of a rather simple cognitive error.

"We find a previously unnoticed common thread between believing in creationism and believing in conspiracy theories," says Sebastian Dieguez, a neuroscientist at the University of Fribourg, who described research newly published in the journal Cell Biology. "Although very different at first glance, both these belief systems are associated with a single and powerful cognitive bias named teleological thinking, which entails the perception of final causes and overriding purpose in naturally occurring events and entities."

Teleological thinking involves ascribing intentions and purposes to features of the world that may not have any consciousness or desires at all. One example Dieguez gave is the thought that the sun rises to provide us light — when in reality the sun appears to rise in the sky because of the Earth's rotation in the solar system.

These patterns of thought are "part of children’s earliest intuitions about the world," the authors, led by Pascal Wagner-Egger, note in the paper.

"This type of thinking is anathema to scientific reasoning, and especially to evolutionary theory, and was famously mocked by Voltaire, whose character Pangloss believed that 'noses were made to wear spectacles.'" said Dieguez. "Yet it is very resilient in human cognition, and we show that it is linked not only to creationism, but also to conspiracism."

One way to detect teleological thinking in individuals if to find that they subscribe to views such as, "Nothing happens by accident" or "Everything happens for a reason." The researchers found that these types of views correspond closely with a propensity to believe conspiracy theories.

But this kind of thinking also bears a striking resemblance to creationism — the view that Darwinian evolution by natural selection didn't occur and that life on Earth was specifically designed (by God, it is usually assumed) with the diversity of species that we see today.

It's worth noting that this view itself may carry with it the corresponding belief that evolutionary views are themselves the result of a conspiracy to deceive the public about the origins of life.

In a series of surveys, Dieguez and other researchers found that teleological thinking, conspiracy theories, and creationism were correlated — albeit sometimes only "modestly" — with one another.

"By drawing attention to the analogy between creationism and conspiracism, we hope to highlight one of the major flaws of conspiracy theories and therefore help people detect it, namely that they rely on teleological reasoning by ascribing a final cause and overriding purpose to world events," Dieguez says. "We think the message that conspiracism is a type of creationism that deals with the social world can help clarify some of the most baffling features of our so-called 'post-truth era.'"

Understanding how these beliefs propagate and why they are so compelling to people — even when, as in the case of Q Anon, they are so obviously nonsense — is critically important to find a way to prevent their spread. The researchers hope their work can help educators and communicators better refute and undermine false theories and beliefs. 

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Cody Fenwick is a reporter and editor. Follow him on Twitter @codytfenwick.