A Cerebral Anatomization of Conspiratorial Beliefs

A comprehensive look at conspiratorial thinking processes.

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In the tropospheric sky of a diminutive Texas town, a small population of residents rose in the morning hours to the sudden appearance of an airship making its way across the horizon. The year is 1897, six years before Wilbur and Orville Wright invented the first airplane.

Ultimately, the strange aircraft would collide with the windmill of Judge J.S. Proctor, a local resident in the town of Aurora, Texas, according to S. E. Haydon, a correspondent with the Dallas Morning News.

As dwellers of the nearby windmill gathered to the crash site, they purportedly stumbled upon an unidentifiable body, frantically carrying it to a well right beside Judge Proctor’s home, before re-transporting it to a nearby cemetery. Shortly after, Haydon of the Dallas Morning News, would print a story of the incident, headlined: “A Windmill Demolishes It,” filed Monday, April 19th, 1897.

In the story by Haydon describes the wreckage caused by a windmill collision and the extensive damage done to the judge’s flower garden. The crash also purportedly destroyed a water tank sitting beside the windmill tower.

In Haydon’s newspaper column, a man named T.J. Weems, a signal service officer with the U.S. Army Signal Corps, was said to be “an authority on astronomy,” assessing and identifying the disfigured body as “a native of the planet Mars.”

Papers found on this person—evidently the record of his travels—are written in some unknown hieroglyphics, and can not be deciphered. The town is full of people to-day who are viewing the wreck and gathering specimens of the strange metal from the debris. The pilot’s funeral will take place at noon to-morrow. S.E. Haydon

For decades, residents of Aurora lived in trepidation, with some recounting instances of the windmill crash right before their deaths. The story would fade from the public eye until nearly a century later, when independent investigators, and conspiracy theorists, began to put the pieces together on what transpired in the early morning hours of that fateful day.

(Haydon’s column from April 19th, 1897. / Photo via: Dallas Morning News)

Eyewitnesses came forward with their accounts of the windmill collision, while others refuted Haydon’s story, implying the incident never occurred and staff members printed it to increase tourism and bring a spotlight to an infinitesimal town.

Other incidents of airships preceding the one in Aurora included a case involving German aviation pioneer Friedrich Wölfert and another with a New York professor as published in the Scientific American and the New York Times.

By the beginning of the 20th century, it became evident the story was likely a disinformation campaign by the Texas newspaper, prompting pressure on Haydon to assert the validity of the report. Eventually, Haydon declared his own story a fabrication, with some experts asserting a cover-up, with no means as to why the incident reached publicization.

Patently, Haydon’s windmill story was perhaps the earliest and first of its kind, with similar stories of disinformation succeeding over the following decades, including a renowned Soviet-era surveillance crash in the New Mexico desert, weeks before the enacting of the National Security Act of 1947 by the 80th United States Congress. The 1952 Invasion of Washington, a 1976 Tehran Dogfight incident, and the 1980 Rendlesham Forest case near RAF Woodbridge, are also classic instances of entirely deceptive or unwittingly misleading information.

Strange Aeronautical Encounters

On a frigid winter night, in 1980, as a group of British soldiers cruised near RAF Woodbridge after a Christmas gathering in Suffolk, England, one soldier purportedly observed a bright light on the horizon. Following a trail along the woods, the soldier eventually reached the location of the strange light, witnessing what appeared to be a stationary black object with unknown hieroglyphics on its side. Approaching its location, the soldier, identified as Lt. Col. Charles I. Halt, allegedly touched the craft before it illuminated a bright light, launched up into the night sky, and zeroed away, only leaving behind indentations on the ground where it once stood.

(F-4 Phantom II model occupied by Gen. Jafari.)

Before the landmark incident in England, another case occurred over the skies of Tehran, Iran in 1976. Flight radars at an airbase detected a foreign object crossing into Iranian airspace, prompting the scrambling of two F-4 Phantom II jet interceptors. Upon tactfully engaging the strange object in the sky, Iranian General Parviz Jafari, claimed the object, resembling a pattern of bright orbs, jumped from one side of the radar to the other, in a blink of an eye. The strange object purportedly disabled his jet before taking off without a trace.

Both incidents in England and Iran, in addition to many others around the globe, have sparked an array of ideologies concerning such phenomenon, mainly adopted by intuitive-minded conspiracy theorists.

A Systemic Review of Conspiratorial Beliefs

Since the incident in Aurora, Texas, conspiracy theories of strange aeronautical encounters, transpiring in the form of deliberately false information to deceive, or disinformation, have perceptibly surged, as too has scientific research examining such beliefs.

In the case of landmark incidents, like the dogfight over Tehran or the New Mexico surveillance crash, which can be both rationally explained away as weather phenomenon or black budget programs, as authority figures declared, many still refute official narratives, flocking to conceptualizations mirroring impossibleness, or pseudoscience.

Even decades following a forced explanation by U.S. Air Force officials regarding the New Mexico crash, conspiracy theories continued to expand, alleging alien bodies recovered at the site. Despite the rational notion that the alleged bodies witnessed were presumptively test dummies, or of foreign residential personnel in a post-mortem, charred condition, conspiracies of more abnormal origin continue to be trusted to this day.

Countless studies probing common conspiracy beliefs, like the Moon landing hoax or the Obama “birther” theory, have placed consensus on several personality factors, religiosity and societal-political attitudes, and illusory pattern perception, in an effort to predict people’s belief in pseudo-scientific conspiracies.

In a study, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, researchers investigated flaws in the way one’s brain processes information and how it contributes to holding irrational beliefs. Such self-deception is rooted in the theory a cognitive mechanism known as illusory pattern perception plays a vital role in the brain endorsing conspiratorial thinking.

(Jan‐Willem van Prooijen, Ph.D., an Associate Professor of Psychology at VU Amsterdam.)

In the past, experts supporting the theory of pattern perception among conspiratorial thinkers have argued the following: “feeling a lack of control in one’s environment is so aversive that individuals will often endorse illusory patterns and irrational beliefs in order to diminish feelings of lacking control and return to the more pleasant view that one’s environment is predictable. Consistent with this argument is additional evidence demonstrating that lacking control increases conspiracy.”

To validate prior assumptions put forth by researchers, Jan-Willem van Prooijen, Ph.D., an Associate Professor of Psychology at VU Amsterdam, systemically tested how pattern perception affected conspiratorial thinking.

“A common assumption is that belief in conspiracy theories and supernatural phenomena are grounded in illusory pattern perception. In the present research we systematically tested this assumption,” Van Prooijen explained.

“Study 1 revealed that such irrational beliefs are related to perceiving patterns in randomly generated coin toss outcomes. In Study 2, pattern search instructions exerted an indirect effect on irrational beliefs through pattern perception. Study 3 revealed that perceiving patterns in chaotic but not in structured paintings predicted irrational beliefs. In Study 4, we found that agreement with texts supporting paranormal phenomena or conspiracy theories predicted pattern perception. In Study 5, we manipulated belief in a specific conspiracy theory.”

“This manipulation influenced the extent to which people perceive patterns in world events, which in turn predicted unrelated irrational beliefs. We conclude that illusory pattern perception is a central cognitive mechanism accounting for conspiracy theories,” Van Prooijen, and his colleagues, concluded in the findings.

Aside from pattern perception, recent studies also give credence to the assumption that confirmation bias and certain personality traits are central to the fixation of conspiratorial beliefs.

But even with all these efforts in consensus and advancement toward comprehending conspiracy theorists, more research is still necessary considering the emerging threat of political discourse in the age of social media.

Well into the 21st century, online disinformation is a heightened concern, and although it will continue to drastically affect readers in the news landscape, it may have broader implications for researchers understanding the conspiratorial mind. Future online disinfo may be key to a better grasp of such incongruous beliefs.