Conspiracy theories: nothing ever happens by accident, or does it?

For several years now, the phenomenon of conspiracy theories has been occupying considerable space in the public debate. To explain this phenomenon of widespread suspicion, “conspiracists” are often seen as having a polarised view of the world in which things “don’t happen by accident”. This hypothesis has now been tested by a group of researchers at the Universities of Fribourg and Paris-Saint-Denis.


Every major event nowadays is accompanied by one or more “alternative explanations” calling into question the “official” version and pointing out inconsistencies (imagined or real) that might indicate the hidden and corrupt agendas of powerful groups. Studies carried out in various countries as well as at the University of Fribourg have attributed a number of sociological and psychological processes to the “conspiracist mentality”: ideological polarisation, breakdown of trust in “elites”, paranoid tendencies, biased and distorted argumentation, anxiety in the face of complexity… Within this framework, commentators have put forward the idea, often taken up by others, that “conspiracists” work within a very simple thought paradigm (a “heuristic”) which could be summed up in these few words: “nothing happens by accident”. An attitude like this would lead to questions such as “who benefits from this crime?” and would facilitate the belief in conspiracy theories.
However, this hypothesis had never been properly put to the test. Three researchers at the Universities of Fribourg and Paris-Saint-Denis have combined their expertise in cognitive, social and mathematical psychology in order to produce a simple test: if the belief in conspiracy theories is in fact linked to the wide-spread heuristic “nothing ever happens by accident”, then this should manifest itself by a particular perception of chance. For example, a “heads or tails” sequence should appear less random to someone who believes in conspiracy theories than to someone who doesn’t.

Popular Misconception

In the course of three experiments, more than 400 participants were asked to say whether binary sequences of equal length, such as “XXXXXXXXXOOX” or “XOOXOXOOOOXX”, seemed to them to be the result of chance or of a deterministic or intentional process. In the above examples, it appears that the first sequence seems less random than the second, an intuitive assessment which is mathematically justified and which provides an objective basis for the concept of chance. The subjects were also required to fill out questionnaires measuring their level of belief in different types of “conspiracism”: general distrust of authority, belief in specific “classic” conspiracy theories (September 11, Lady Diana, assassination of JFK, etc.) and also a propensity to believe in “interpersonal” conspiracies (involving, for example, a conspiracy against them by work colleagues).

The results, published in the journal Psychological Science, contradict the idea that conspiracy theorists believe that “nothing ever happens by accident”. On the contrary, they show that there is no link at all between the capacity to perceive chance and the conspiracist mentality. Although attractive and practical, this basic hypothesis must therefore be cast aside and research opened up to a more nuanced explanation. “Understanding the mechanisms of conspiracy theories is an important and urgent challenge in a political and media world marked by a breakdown of trust, by ideological polarisation fostered by waves of so-called “alternative” information and by general mistrust of “elites” and “experts”. Our research now locates the motivation for a conspiracist mentality at a more complex cognitive level”, the three researchers observe.

Link to the article: Sebastian Dieguez, Pascal Wagner-Egger et Nicolas Gauvrit, «“Nothing happens by accident”, or does it? A low prior for randomness does not explain belief in conspiracy theories», Psychological Science.

Sebastian Dieguez, Laboratory for Cognitive and Neurological Sciences, 026 300 85 35, sebastian.dieguez@unifr.ch
Pascal Wagner-Egger, Département de psychologie, 026 300 76 25, pascal.wagner@unifr.ch