Humans have a tendency to see patterns everywhere. That’s important when making decisions and judgments and acquiring knowledge; we tend to be uneasy with chaos and chance (Gilovich, 1991). Unfortunately, that same tendency to see patterns in everything can lead to seeing things that don’t exist.

Defining Patternicity

Patternicity: Finding meaningful patterns in meaningless noise (Shermer, 2008)

In Shermer’s 2000 book How We Believe, he argues that our brains have evolved as pattern recognition machines. Our brains create meaning from patterns we see or at least think we see in nature (Shermer, 2008). Often, the patterns are real, while other times they are manifestations of chance. Pattern recognition tells us something valuable about the environment from which we can make predictions that help us with survival and reproduction. Pattern recognition is imperative to learning.

From an evolutionary perspective, seeing patterns even when they are not there is preferable to not seeing patterns when in fact they are there. Consider the following scenarios, and the costs of being incorrect:

  • False positive: You hear a loud noise in the bushes. You assume it is a predator and run away. It was not a predator, but a powerful wind gust. Your cost for being incorrect is a little extra energy expenditure and false assumption.
  • False negative: You hear a loud noise in the bushes and you assume it is the wind. It is a hungry predator. Your cost for being wrong is your life.

Of course, in modern society the implications for false positives and false negatives have changed. But, as illustrated above it is easy to see how this tendency to see patterns could have been shaped by evolution.

Pattern Recognition Errors:

  • Hearing messages when playing records backwards
  • Seeing faces on Mars, in the clouds and on mountainsides
  • Seeing the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast
  • Superstitious beliefs of all types
  • Sports Illustrated Jinx (a jinx occurs leading to poor performance, caused by being featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine; see here)
  • Spotlight effect (everyone is looking and paying attention to me)
  • Hot hand in basketball
  • Conspiracy theories

Those are just a few of the many examples of pattern recognition gone awry.

Illusory Correlation and Illusory Control

Illusory correlation: tendency to see expected correlations even when they do not exist; leading people to see structure when there is none (Stanovich, 2007).

Illusion of control: the belief that personal skill can affect matters that are determined by chance.

Research studies have demonstrated that when people believe that two variables are correlated, they will see a connection even in data where they are totally unrelated. It is not unusual for clinicians to see correlations “in response patterns because they believe they are there, not because they are actually present in the pattern of responses being observed“ (Stanovich, 2007, p. 169).

A study conducted by Langer (1975) investigated the tendency to believe personal skill can influence outcomes that are determined by chance (illusion of control). Two employees from two different companies sold lottery tickets to some of their co-workers. Some people were allowed to choose their tickets, while others were handed a ticket — they didn’t have a choice which ticket they received.

The next day the two employees who sold the tickets attempted to buy the tickets back from their co-workers. The co-workers who had picked their own tickets wanted four times more money than the ones who had been handed a ticket (demonstration of illusion of control).

In addition to that study, Langer conducted several others that supported the hypothesis that individuals have a hard time accepting the fact that skill cannot influence the outcome of chance events.

Have you even known someone who insists on picking their own numbers when playing the lottery? They assume if they pick their numbers they have a better chance of winning than if their numbers are chosen by a machine. This a classic example of the illusion of control.

There is need to attach extravagant explanations to every event that occurs. Randomness and chance are inevitable. By equipping ourselves with adequate knowledge in the areas of scientific and probabilistic thinking we can avoid many of the misperceptions surrounding chance events.

Our pattern-detecting ability serves us well in many instances, but it also can lead to seeing something when there is nothing there. In the words of Rudolf Flesch:

Instead of the black and-white, single-track, everyone-knows-that-this-is-due-to-that approach, get used to the idea that this is a world of multiple causes, imperfect correlations, and sheer, unpredictable chance. It is true that the scientists, with their statistics and their probabilities, have made a stab at the harnessing of chance. But they know very well that certainty is unattainable. A high degree of probability is the best we can ever get.