Causal illusions occur when people misinterpret random patterns as evidence of a causal relationship. New research published in the British Journal of Psychology provides evidence that this illusion of causality is associated with belief in pseudoscience.
“I think it is fascinating how people can come to believe in facts that are not proven and how the fear of the unknown makes us imagine unlikely scenarios to explain it, as in the case of paranormal phenomena,” said study author Marta N. Torres, a PhD student and associate lecturer at the University of Barcelona. “Some people even resist giving up on them when they are presented with evidence to the contrary, as is the case of some pseudosciences. Knowing what is behind this phenomenon seems crucial to me.”
In the study, 225 psychology students were asked to judge the effectiveness of a fictional Amazonian herb in curing headaches. They were shown a series of 48 medical records describing patients suffering a headache who either did or did not receive the herb. The headache was said to have disappeared in 27 patients who ingested the herb and 9 patients who did not ingest the herb. The headache persisted in 9 patients who ingested the herb and in 3 who did not.
The rate of headache remission was statistically independent of the patients taking or not taking the herb, but most participants perceived some degree of causal relation between the herb and the headache disappearing.
The researchers found that those who believed there was a stronger causal connection also tended to endorse more pseudoscientific beliefs, such as the belief that an optimistic attitude helps to prevent cancer or the belief that homeopathic remedies are effective.
The results indicate that “there are cognitive biases that can make us perceive reality inaccurately,” Torres told PsyPost.
“For example, just as there are optical illusions, there are also causal illusions that may be responsible for developing beliefs without proven foundations, as in the case of pseudoscientific beliefs. Finally, the reader should not forget that the correlation of two events does not necessarily imply that one is the cause of the other.”
The findings build upon previous research, which has found that the illusion of causality is associated with paranormal beliefs.
But the new study — like all research — includes some limitations. For example, the sample of participants was relatively young and included more women than men.
“It would be interesting to collect responses from a more heterogeneous sample and to be able to replicate our results. Therefore, one of our next objectives is to adapt and carry out the experiment on online platforms that allow us to collect a more representative sample,” Torres explained.
“Another limitation is that, given that our study is correlational, we cannot conclude whether there is an actual causal relation between the presence of causal illusions and pseudoscience endorsement. Studies applying debiasing techniques to reduce causal illusion and assessing its effect over the presence of pseudoscientific beliefs could help to clarify the nature of this association.”
“Pseudosciences, like homeopathy or acupuncture, are very present in our daily lives. Sometimes they are offered to us as a panacea for our health problems, so I would recommend that anyone be informed about the risks they might be exposed to, before making the decision to use them,” Torres added.
The study, “Causal illusion as a cognitive basis of pseudoscientific beliefs“, was authored by Marta N. Torres, Itxaso Barberia, and Javier Rodríguez‐Ferreiro.