Individuals are faced with decision-making under background uncertainty on a daily basis. Such uncertainty includes economic crisis, climate change, or global pandemics, to name but a few. This is currently exemplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, which imposes background uncertainty on health, job security, and the general global economy. Such uncertainties resulting from natural events are most likely characterized by ambiguity, as the likelihood of specific outcomes are unknown. One line of research within the field of decision-making under uncertainty has suggested that people show different uncertainty preferences, including ambiguity aversion (Dimmock, Kouwenberg, & Wakker, 2016; Shupp, Loveridge, Skidmore, Lim, & Rogers, 2017; Trautmann & van de Kuilen, 2015). Another line of research within this field has suggested that people apply heuristics under conditions of incomplete information, which are adaptive cognitive mechanisms to help make decisions quickly and effortless (Tversky & Kahneman, 1982). It has been shown that the use of heuristics may result in biases which lead an individual to perceive illusory correlations (Hilbert, 2012), which can be defined as identifying coherent and meaningful interrelations among unrelated stimuli (Whitson & Galinsky, 2008). This may range from perceiving illusory patterns at the level of the perceptual system (Parkkonen, Andersson, Hämäläinen & Hari, 2008) to beliefs in conspiracy theories.
Both lines of the outlined research have been studied separately, but no research has yet examined a direct relationship between ambiguity aversion and illusory pattern perception. Uncovering such a relationship is the main objective of the current study. Particularly, this study explores whether people with different degrees of ambiguity aversion, show different levels of illusory pattern perceptions and beliefs in conspiracy theories. In addition, Hogg, Kruglanski, and van den Bos (2013) suggest uncertainty as a potential precondition for the development of extremism by impacting people’s world views and belief systems. Accordingly, this study further aims to explore if differences in subjective and objective impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic affect ambiguity aversion and illusory pattern perception, respectively. Lastly, as the use of heuristics has been identified to result in biases leading to the perception of illusory correlations, the study further investigates the role of heuristics in the relationship between ambiguity aversion and illusory pattern perception.