Illusions of causality at the heart of pseudoscience


Professor Helena Matute, Departamento de Fundamentos y métodos de la Psicologia, Deusto University, Apartado 1, 48080 Bilbao, Spain (e-mail:


Pseudoscience, superstitions, and quackery are serious problems that threaten public health and in which many variables are involved. Psychology, however, has much to say about them, as it is the illusory perceptions of causality of so many people that needs to be understood. The proposal we put forward is that these illusions arise from the normal functioning of the cognitive system when trying to associate causes and effects. Thus, we propose to apply basic research and theories on causal learning to reduce the impact of pseudoscience. We review the literature on the illusion of control and the causal learning traditions, and then present an experiment as an illustration of how this approach can provide fruitful ideas to reduce pseudoscientific thinking. The experiment first illustrates the development of a quackery illusion through the testimony of fictitious patients who report feeling better. Two different predictions arising from the integration of the causal learning and illusion of control domains are then proven effective in reducing this illusion. One is showing the testimony of people who feel better without having followed the treatment. The other is asking participants to think in causal terms rather than in terms of effectiveness.