On May 19, 2016, Egyptair flight MS804 disappeared from radar screens just half an hour before it was due to land in Cairo. At the time of writing, the cause of the crash is unknown, but, unlike the case of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared without a trace in March 2014, wreckage from MS804 has been discovered. Hopefully the black box will soon follow and the cause of the tragedy will be discovered.
Like MH370, however, conspiracy theories soon followed, collectively implicating just about every government of the Middle East, U.S. presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, and pointing out the coincidence that it has been 804 days since the disappearance of MH370. While signs of a fire on board MS804 have been found, Egypt's civil aviation minister Sherif Fathy urged the public not to jump to conspiracy theories--a fire could mean a bomb, or a mechanical malfunction.
As Fathy's statement points out, when something like this happens, we face a seemingly simple question: Was this an accident, or did somebody mean for it to happen? Psychological research shows that our brain is far from neutral when searching for an answer.
To demonstrate, take a minute and a half or so to watch the video below. It might not immediately make sense what it has to do with airline disasters, but bear with me and all will become clear.
The video is from a classic study in social psychology, published in 1944, carried out by Fritz Heider and his grad student Marianne Simmel. They painstakingly animated the film by cutting shapes out of cardboard and moving them, frame by frame, in a carefully choreographed sequence. Then they showed the film to thirty-four college students without explanation, and asked them to describe what they saw.
One participant reported seeing three shapes moving around the screen, nothing more. She described it in purely abstract terms: “A large solid triangle is shown entering a rectangle … Then another, smaller triangle and a circle appear on the scene. The circle enters the rectangle” and so on. The other thirty-three participants saw not just three shapes but three characters, interacting with one another, expressing their own unique personality, motives, needs, and desires. Some saw playing children, some saw quarreling lovers, some saw cavorting dogs or other animals. It’s hard to not see a story.
To be clear, I don’t mean to say we're wrong to see the little shapes as acting out a story. After all, the shapes’ movements aren’t random; they were carefully designed to resemble intentional action. In their paper, Heider and Simmel themselves described the action as an anthropomorphic story complete with chases, fight scenes, and a climactic ending.
The point is, we are constantly on the lookout for signs of intent in the world around us, and it only takes the slightest hint of a deliberate act to send our intention-detector into overdrive. Our minds can conjure up personalities and motives, heroes and villains, even when we’re just watching a crudely animated film of two triangles and a circle moving around a rectangle.
Here’s how this obscure seventy-year-old film can help us explain conspiracy theories. A recent experiment by Karen Douglas and colleagues had a few hundred people watch the Heider-Simmel video. Instead of asking them to freely describe what they saw, the researchers just asked the viewers to rate how conscious and purposeful they saw the shapes as. In an ostensibly unrelated questionnaire, everyone also rated how plausible they found a handful of conspiracy theories. And their responses were related; the more someone saw the shapes as alive, the more likely they were to believe conspiracy theories.
Two other recent studies offer more evidence that our intentionality bias can nudge us towards conspiracy theorizing. Jan van der Tempel and James Alcock used a simple questionnaire which asked their participants to imagine eighteen hypothetical events befalling them (“A stone falls from a scaffold and seriously injures you”, for example), and to rate each item on a 5-point scale from “The event had no purpose” and “The event clearly had a purpose.” People's scores on the scale correlated moderately with how much they said they believe conspiracy theories.
Lastly, myself and Professor Chris French at Goldsmiths, University of London, had people read ambiguous sentences, each of which could be describing something done intentionally or something that happened by accident—things like "The girl popped the balloon" and “She kicked the dog.” We had our participants describe what came to mind when they read each sentence, and then we counted up the number of sentences that they imagined to be describing deliberate actions. Again, the more someone saw intent in ambiguity, the more likely they were to buy into conspiracy theories.
In sum, these studies suggest that part of the appeal of conspiracy theories may be the way they resonate with our brain’s tendency to see intent in everything. The correlation is small, but seemingly reliable. It makes sense that the more we give in to this bias, the more open we’ll be to conspiracy theories. A conspiracy theory assumes intent by definition; in the world according to conspiracy theorists, nothing happens by accident.
The truth about MH370 remains elusive; hopefully the cause of the MS804 crash will be uncovered soon. Maybe mechanical accidents were to blame for the tragedies, maybe there was malfeasance. But while we linger in the uncomfortable absence of certainty, it’s no surprise that our brains will nudge us to assume intent—and it’s a small leap from intent to intrigue.