Creationists and Conspiracy Theorists Share the Same Cognitive Error, Study Finds

The Eye of Providence, seen on U.S. currency, represents the eye of God watching over humanity. Robert Emperley/Flickr

Fateful reasoning, such as the belief that certain events are "meant to be" or that "everything happens for a reason," is extremely common across humanity. This kind of thinking, called teleological thinking, probably has a number of psychological benefits, which speaks to its allure as a compelling cognitive bias. It has even been a feature in the thinking of some of the most influential philosophers in history, from Plato and Aristotle to Georg Hegel.

Unfortunately, teleological thinking can lead to deeply fallacious and pathological thinking as well. In fact, a new study out of the University of Fribourg has found that a basic cognitive error at the heart of teleological thinking is also correlated with two types of other forms of popular but fallacious belief systems: creationism and conspiracy theory, reports MedicalXpress.

"We find a previously unnoticed common thread between believing in creationism and believing in conspiracy theories," explained researcher Sebastian Dieguez. "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."

While it might seem innocuous enough to hold to certain beliefs like "everything happens for a reason," researchers found that this kind of thinking leaves people prone to some grossly erroneous beliefs, such as the idea that "the sun rises in order to give us light" or "the purpose of bees is to ensure pollination." Researchers note that such thinkers are often ill-equipped to comprehend basic scientific facts.

"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.' Yet it is very resilient in human cognition, and we show that it is linked not only to creationism, but also to conspiracism," noted Dieguez.

How they reached this conclusion

Dieguez and colleagues reached their conclusions after issuing two sets of questionnaires. First, they asked more than 150 college students to rate certain teleological claims and conspiracist statements. The survey also measured analytical thinking, esoteric and magical beliefs, and included a randomness perception task. Second, more than 700 people were asked to complete similar questionnaires online.

Taken together, the questionnaires showed that teleological thinking was curiously common among both creationists and conspiracy theorists.

"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 said. "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.'"

Ultimately, these results could have implications in how educators teach science and critical thinking, and could even help to formulate ways of identifying how these fallacious forms of thinking can go viral on social media.

"It's possible that content framed in teleological terms are easier to process and spread faster than other types of information, and this could be tested on a much larger scale," said Dieguez.