When I was a teenager, the bookshelves at home were filled with books about self-development and new age spirituality. I grew up reading and enjoying Harry Potter, and the new age books seemed to be an invitation into a different kind of magical world. Unlike Harry Potter however, the new age books claim to be non-fiction.
I read a lot of new age books as a teen. I gobbled them up and believed their fantastical claims. Many of these books share a similar thread - the idea that everything and everyone comes into your life for a reason. Every meeting, every misstep, every animal sighting, and every 11:11 sighting, is a sign from the universe. All you need to do is recognise the sign and interpret its message.
When I was 15 or 16, I started to embody the “everything is a sign” mindset and honestly, it was really fun. It imbued each day with a kind of magic and inspiration. I would meet a new person and be so curious and excited to discover the meaning behind our meeting. I would see butterflies and believe they were a sign that I was on the right path. Or I would get a sore throat and believe there was something I needed to express.
My “everything is a sign” mindset reached its peak when I had just turned 18 and was preparing to move to Melbourne. I was looking for a sharehouse and had replied to a few different ads. One day my phone rang and I had the thought, whoever this is will have some kind of guidance for me. As it turned out, it was the property manager of one of the share houses I’d applied to and she was offering me a room. I remember her saying something like, “I think you found my ad for a reason”. I interpreted her words along with the timing of the room’s availability as a very clear message from the universe that this was the perfect house for me.
On the basis of this conversation, I moved into a house that I had not seen any photos of, with four people I’d never met. One of the people who lived in the house was the ex-husband of the property manager. Let’s call him Nikolas. Shortly after I’d moved in, another of the housemates told me that Nikolas had been involved in Melbourne’s gangland war. Whilst I cannot confirm that story, it quickly became apparent that Nikolas had violent tendencies and I moved out again.
My lack of discernment in this situation was partially due to my age and naivete. But the “everything is a sign” mindset also played a big role in my decision-making process. I believed that I had correctly interpreted a series of messages from the universe and as such I fully trusted that moving to that house would be for my highest good.
Overlaps in New Age and Conspiratorial Thinking
At best, the “everything is a sign” mindset can provide people with a sense of spiritual meaning and connectedness. It can be fun and benign if it is not a person’s primary or only decision-making tool. At worst, through encouraging people to look for hidden meaning in everything, this mindset primes people towards conspiratorial thinking. In fact, I believe the “everything is a sign” mindset plays a role in lubricating the new age to conspiracy theory pipeline. This unfortunate convergence is known as conspirituality.
In his book, A Culture of Conspiracy, Michael Barkun outlines the following three core principles that he believes are present in almost every conspiracy:
"Nothing happens by accident. Conspiracy implies a world based on intentionality, from which accident and coincidence have been removed. Anything that happens occurs because it has been willed. At its most extreme, the result is a "fantasy [world] ... far more coherent than the real world."
Nothing is as it seems. Appearances are deceptive, because conspirators wish to deceive in order to disguise their identities or their activities. Thus the appearance of innocence is deemed to be no guarantee that an individual or group is benign.
Everything is connected. Because the conspiracists' world has no room for accident, pattern is believed to be everywhere, albeit hidden from plain view. Hence the conspiracy theorist must engage in a constant process of linkage and correlation in order to map the hidden connections."
Other than being an excellent distillation of conspiratorial thinking, the thing that strikes me most about this passage is that these principles almost perfectly align with the mindset of new age spirituality. People in these circles frequently say, “Nothing happens by accident” or its twin phrase, “everything happens for a reason” and they adamantly believe this to be true. The “nothing is as it seems” principle is used to invoke a spiritual reality beyond the 3D world. “Everything is connected” is held as a fundamental spiritual truth - I know for myself I have experienced states of oneness where this feels profoundly true. However, chronically seeking meaningful patterns of connection can metastasize into apophenia.
Apophenia: Illusory Pattern Perception
All of us have chronically pattern-seeking and meaning-making minds. These are important and functional processes which increase our likelihood of survival and help us to make sense of the world around us.
Consider the pattern perception that sometimes occurs when someone approaches a garden hose in the grass at night. Their pattern-seeking mind says “Snake!!” and the person immediately jumps back. This evolutionary pay-off for this is clear. In terms of threats to survival, it pays to react first and check the accuracy of the pattern perception later.
Illusory pattern perception happens all the time - but in a case like mistaking a garden hose for a snake, people usually quickly realise their misconception and then have a laugh to release the tension. Illusory pattern perception without correction is known as apophenia.
The term ‘apophenia’ was first used to describe the phenomenon whereby normal stimuli is imbued with abnormal significance by individuals in the earliest stages of psychosis. However, more recently, the term ‘apophenia’ has come to refer to an individual’s tendency to make meaningful connections between unrelated stimuli, regardless of whether or not they are experiencing psychosis.
Some research indicates that the left hemisphere of the brain preferentially processes close associations between concepts and events, whereas the right hemisphere tends towards looser associations between things.
The overactivation of the right hemisphere can result in apophenia. The hyperactivity of associational networks can be recognised in states induced by psychoactive substances, psychosis, or mania. Perceiving connections everywhere can evoke heightened states of creativity, ecstasy, and spirituality. However, the overactive perception of uncommon associations can also induce states of fear and paranoia.
In his article, From Haunted Brain to Haunted Science, Peter Brugger writes, “The ability to associate, and especially the tendency to prefer "remote" over "close" associations, is at the heart of creative, paranormal and delusional thinking.”
Yet, all of us are at risk of moments of apophenia. So much so that in statistics, this risk is known as “Type I Error”. A Type I Error occurs when researchers assume the presence of non-random patterns in data when the patterns actually occurred randomly. Our pattern-seeking brains often fail to comprehend the likelihood of random processes generating a result that appears non-random.
In the example of mistaking a garden hose for a snake, it’s clear that one of the reasons our brains attempt to perceive patterns is to predict future outcomes, especially outcomes that could threaten our physical survival. However, there are also psychological pay-offs for pattern detection - even illusory pattern detection. After all, we are small human animals in a vast chaotic universe. Pattern perception, be it illusory or accurate, can provide a semblance of control and certainty. This seems to be one reason that individuals are more likely to engage in apophenia and conspiratorial thinking when they are experiencing lower levels of subjective control. The need to imbue an uncertain world with order and certainty is one framework that helps to explain the increase in conspiracy theory adherents throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Illusory pattern perception is a compensatory strategy that allows individuals (or groups) to avoid complexity and unpredictability and in so doing, regain a subjective sense of control. It makes sense then, that people who have a higher need for personal structure and a lower tolerance for ambiguity are more likely to engage in apophenia.
Apophenia does not feed a need for accuracy, it feeds a need for meaning and order.
Apophenia and Pizzagate
Conspiracy theories feed this same need. Michael Barkun defines a conspiracy belief as “the belief that an organisation made up of individuals or groups was or is acting covertly to achieve some malevolent end.” Barkun goes on to write, “A conspiracist worldview implies a universe governed by design rather than by randomness.” Since conspiracy theorists believe that nefarious individuals are connected and acting in covert ways, they seek to “connect the dots'' in order to elucidate hidden meanings and motives. This makes apophenia one of the central cognitive mechanisms of conspiratorial thinking.
The pizzagate conspiracy theory is a striking example of illusory pattern perception and the insertion of hidden meaning in places where there was none to be found.
In 2016, Wikileaks published the personal email account of Hilary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta. Adherents of the pizzagate conspiracy insisted that these emails contained coded messages that revealed that Hilary Clinton and other members of the Democratic Party were paedophiles and child sex traffickers.
In November of 2016, a 4chan user claimed that the term ‘cheese pizza’ in Podesta’s emails was code for child pornography. Another channer posted a key to decoding other terms in Podesta’s emails. They suggested that:
‘Hotdog’ = boy
‘Pizza’ = girl
‘Cheese’ = little girl
‘Pasta’ = little boy
‘Ice cream’ = male prostitute
‘Walnut’ = person of colour
‘Map’ = semen
‘Sauce’ = orgy
It cannot be overemphasised that an anonymous user on 4chan made this code up. Nevertheless, pizzagate conspiracists eagerly adopted it, such that emails about pizza nights were interpreted as salacious evidence of child trafficking.
The pizza restaurant, Comet Ping Pong was also mentioned in the leaked emails, which led pizzagate adherents to believe that a child sex ring was in the basement of the restaurant. Some pizzagate enthusiasts believed that the five-pointed stars and crescent moons on the Comet Ping Pong sign were associated with the goat-headed deity Baphomet. Some pizzagaters believed that Baphomet was unholy and that paedophiles purposefully adopted his symbology to reveal themselves to one another. This further reinforced the belief that Comet Ping Pong was the site of child sex trafficking.
This collective frenzy of apophenia came to a climax in December of 2016. In the weeks prior, Edgar Maddison Welch had been obsessively pouring over pizzagate conspiracy videos on Youtube. Eventually, he had seen enough and was convinced that he had to take matters into his own hands. On the morning of December 4th, Welch loaded his car with three guns including an assault rifle, and drove over 570 kilometres from his hometown in North Carolina to Washington DC. He was driving to Comet Ping Pong.
Welch has two young daughters and as he neared the pizza restaurant, he recorded a video message in which he told them, “I can’t let you grow up in a world that’s so corrupted by evil without at least standing up for you. For you, and for other children just like you.”
That Sunday afternoon, Welch walked into Comet Ping Pong with an assault rifle and the intention to liberate the children from the sex ring in the basement of the restaurant. Only there were no children to save and there was no basement.
Instead of leaving Comet Ping Pong as a noble hero, Welch left having terrified the staff and customers, including children, that were occupying the restaurant that day. Instead of making the world a better place for his daughters, Welch upended their world as he was charged with four and a half years in prison.
In 2017, the broad themes of Pizzagate, which themselves have antisemitic roots, were repurposed into QAnon. QAnon was a much larger, globally-adopted conspiracy theory. QAnon is based on the existence of a paedophilic cannibalistic cabal who runs a global child sex-trafficking ring. Some QAnon adherents also believe this satanic cabal is made up of reptilian shapeshifters. Others believe the cabal harvest adrenochrome from the blood of children and ingest it to prolong their lives. Perhaps more absurdly, QAnonners positioned Trump as a saviour figure who was secretly fighting the evil deep state.
As outlandish as it sounds from the outside, QAnon has been influential enough to inspire numerous acts of violence. QAnon adherents were a notable presence in the January 6th Capitol Insurrection in 2021. Later that same year, a Californian man’s belief in QAnon mythology led him to murder his two children because he was convinced they had inherited serpent DNA from their mother.
Pizzagate and QAnon both illustrate that conspiracy theories are decidedly not harmless. Not only do conspiracy theories have a devastating impact on people’s mental health and their relationships, they also have profound social and political consequences. Conspiracy theories can and have been harnessed for political motives. Trump, for instance, refused to disavow QAnon - presumably because they treated him as a Messiah-like figure and he did not want to lose their voter support.
What makes Conspiracy Theories so Compelling?
In an era of disinformation, it’s important to understand the mechanisms that make falsifiable ideas and ideologies psychologically attractive. In terms of conspiracy theories, here is a non-exhaustive list of some of the mechanisms at play.
Apophenia and The Ikea Effect
We already touched on the role of apophenia in conspiracy theories, whereby theorists ‘connect the dots' and receive the dopaminergic benefit of (illusory) pattern detection. Yet this mechanism is compounded by The Ikea Effect. The Ikea Effect is the cognitive bias that leads people to place more value on things they construct themselves - this applies to Ikea furniture as well as ideological constructs. This is why conspiracy theorists are always boasting about doing their own research and suggesting that other people do the same. They are placing higher value on the theories they believe they have pieced together themselves. This also aligns with the human need for autonomy, which develops in infants when they are 18 months old and want to do things themselves. We don’t really lose that desire.
People like solving puzzles and feeling like they did it all by themselves. At the height of QAnon, I wondered what it would be like to give all adherents word puzzle games, vouchers for escape rooms, invitations to murder mystery parties.. just any opportunity that would allow them to experience the thrill of puzzle-solving in a benign way. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as that.
The Gift of Certainty and Dichotomous Thinking
Conspiracy theories provide the gift of certainty. It might seem counterintuitive to think that believing in cannibalistic paedophiles could be comforting. But it is comforting because nuance is a nuisance. Paedophilia is clearly wrong, so for those who believe in a globally-operating paedophilic cabal, uncertainty fades away and shades of grey start to disappear. The world is suddenly black and white. There is a holy war between good and evil.
Playing the Hero
This brings us to another compelling feature of conspiracy theories. Adherents get to play the hero. They believe they have access to what Michael Barkun calls, 'stigmatised knowledge' This knowledge makes them special, different, and even extraordinary. Anytime an outsider challenges the validity of their stigmatised knowledge, is further proof of its specialness. Disagreement and censorship of disinformation emboldens conspiracy theorists to double down on their beliefs. They see themselves as torchbearers of sacred knowledge that must be protected at all costs. In this way, stigmatised knowledge promotes a certain in-group out-group religiosity.
The people who disagree with conspiracy theories are sheep who are asleep in the matrix. In contrast, conspiracists believe they have woken up and taken the red pill. I often feel vicarious frustration for the Wachowski sisters for the clumsy and insistent way that conspiracy theorists and the alt-right have co-opt the red-pill analogy - but unfortunately the Matrix imagery serves their hero narrative.
In Van Badham’s 2021 book, QAnon and On, she writes:
"The narrative of QAnon was one… in which people could be heroes, and convince themselves they were righteous and noble, virtuous, benevolent. It was a LARP in which nobody had to admit to themselves they were LARPing. It was The Matrix in which every viewer also got to play Neo."
The desire to play the hero is a connective bridge between the already overlapping worlds of conspiracy theorists, new agers and the alt right. These worlds also have a shared tendency to use words like sheep, sheeple and NPCs (non-player Characters) to describe people who disagree with them. This fits with the mythology of the awakened hero. If those with stigmatised knowledge are awake then everyone else is asleep. The terms ‘sheep’ and ‘NPC’ are invoked with such contempt by these groups. This disgust at the idea of not being the hero at the centre of the story emphasises their shared value of hyper-individualism. It also highlights another facet of dichotomous thinking that is encouraged by conspiracists, which is the belief that people are either heroes or sheep, protagonists or NPCs. Certainly we are all protagonists of our own lives and stories, but we all also have supporting roles and background roles in the lives of other people. I believe we should be gladdened by our supporting roles and even our role of decorating the background in the lives of others. Seemingly, this perspective is less appealing than being The Hero.
Conspiracy theories allow believers to perceive patterns and solve puzzles that reduce ambiguity and manufacture a sense of order. They offer a clear division between good and bad, along with the opportunity to play the role of the noble hero in endless variations of holy war. Finally, conspiracy theories provide a sense of community. Everyone who pieces together the stigmatised knowledge is connected through their shared mission to protect and disseminate it.
Leaving a movement like QAnon can be a blow to a person’s self-esteem because it means admitting they were never a renegade red-pilled hero. They were just LARPing as Neo. Taking the Neo costume off requires humility, self-compassion and compassion from others. People have a better chance of exiting cults and conspiracy theories alike, if they have maintained connections or can reconnect with people they knew before they were immersed in the ideology.
People leaving behind conspiracy theories need support, care and kindness. For some people, conspiracy theories become like a kind of scaffolding that holds up their sense of self and their image of the world. Without these beliefs, their sense of certainty and stability can come crashing down. That’s pretty scary, especially for people who have a lower tolerance for ambiguity - who are the people that are more likely to be attracted to conspiracy theories in the first place.
Antidotes to Conspirituality and Conspiratorial Thinking
Emerging out of the depths of conspiracy theory immersion is not easy which is why I’m interested in what can help prevent the initial descent into spirals of disinformation and apophenia. While there are many potential antidotes to conspiratorial thinking, I have chosen to briefly explore the immunizing potential of sensemaking and humour.
Sensemaking: Salient Pattern Perception
Sensemaking is the dynamic process of mapping our understanding of a shifting world. Sensemaking requires recognising the relationship between elements within a complex system. In other words, sensemaking requires pattern perception.
So how does sensemaking differ from the illusory pattern perception of apophenia and conspiratorial thinking? I see three major differences:
- Sensemaking seeks out salient cues in order to discern patterns within complexity
The key word here is salient. This means seeking out cues that are useful and relevant within a given context. For the conspiracist, “everything is connected” and while there is potentially a kind of spiritual truth in this statement, it is not helpful for coherent map-making. Creating a useful map requires choosing and symbolising relevant landmarks. Imagine a road map that included every driveway. It would be cloistered, cluttered and confusing.
For the conspiritualist, “nothing happens by accident” and everything is a synchronicity and therefore everything can be infused with meaning and significance. The problem with both of these perspectives is that they foreground everything at once. If everything is a synchronicity, then nothing is a synchronicity. There is a skill in knowing what to foreground and what to leave in the background. This is as true in sensemaking as it is in art and photography.
Sensemaking involves discerning which dots to connect and which dots to allow to remain disparate. Even though our human minds can find ways to connect just about anything, it doesn't mean we should. As Peter Brugger notes, “a proper understanding of the world sometimes requires the successful inhibition of associations.”
2. Sensemaking embraces (rather than erases) complexity
As outlined earlier, part of the reason many people engage in apophenia and conspiratorial thinking is to minimise complexity and reduce ambiguity. The illusory pattern perception of apophenia often allows people to arrive at black and white conclusions in an attempt to increase their sense of subjective control. In contrast, sensemaking involves increasing our tolerance for complexity through practising cognitive flexibility and epistemic humility. In Daniel Schmachtenberger words, epistemic humility “requires embracing uncertainty as unavoidable, while remaining oriented to understanding progressively more”.
3. Sensemaking employs different forms of reasoning
Whilst conspiratorial thinking tends to emerge from hunches and intuition, Deborah Ancona notes that sensemaking involves moving between “heuristics and algorithm, intuition and logic, inductive and deductive reasoning”. Moving between different forms of inquiry can minimise the likelihood of coming to conclusions based on cognitive biases.
When attempting to make sense of any situation, it is helpful to develop criteria to assist our reasoning. For example, media and research literacy, systems thinking, and philosophical tools such as Occam’s razor can be helpful in deciding which information to consume and which lens to use to view the situation.
Good sensemaking allows people to wade through what Schmachtenberger refers to as a polluted information ecology without drowning or getting caught in the weeds.
Humour and Bemusement
I’ll finish with two short stories to illustrate how lightheartedness and humour can serve as potential antidotes to apophenia and conspiratorial thinking.
A few years ago, I was at a cafe with a couple friends and someone spilled a little bit of water on the table. Someone pointed to the spillage and said, “Look, it looks like a cat! There are the ears and that’s its tail.” I looked down and said, “Oh yeah, I can see the cat.” Our other friend looked down, cocked her head and then said, “Yeah... I can’t see it all. I’m looking at the water on the table and all I can think is ‘Blob’”. We all broke out laughing.
I think this was such a joyful and hilarious experience because it elucidated the fact that pattern perception is subjective and tenuous. If I was in my “everything is a sign” phase, I may have even made more meaning out of seeing the shape of the cat in the water. Maybe I would have decided that because I had seen a cat, the universe was telling me I needed to be more self-reliant. This can be enjoyable and harmless up to a certain point, but when we start making associative leaps and confusing subjective and objective interpretations of the world, perhaps we all need a friend who says… “Blob.”
Something similar happened when my sister took some mushrooms with a group of friends. At one point, one of her friends said, “I have a really weird feeling in my belly. I think it’s emotional trauma.” And my sister said, “I think you just did need to fart”. As it turns out, she did just need a good fart.
We really do have these amazing pattern-seeking and storytelling minds. These tendencies have the potential to help us to make sense of the world and to imbue our lives with meaning and purpose. However, when pattern perception goes into overdrive, it can impoverish our sensemaking capacity, and even lead to paranoia and delusion.
As a teen, part of my new age spirituality involved interpreting everything as a sign or synchronicity. Today, I don’t have a crystallised spiritual worldview or practice that I abide by. Yet, if I had to articulate a practice that I want to devote myself to, it would be the practice of increasing my tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. After all, it is a wild and complex world. Sometimes that which looks like a pattern is random, and sometimes that which appears random, is a pattern.