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Hardwired 16: Pattern recognition

It’s not hard to see why this obsession with patterns prevailed in the ancestral environment. The early hunter-gatherer who learned to recognise the association between plants and water would have a distinct advantage over those who didn’t. The homo erectus who understood that birds falling silent is often part of a pattern involving dangerous predators would certainly have the edge. So our species evolved pattern recognition as a very effective survival strategy. It’s true that this sort of inference (the assumption of danger) can lead to over caution on occasion but that probably wasn’t such a bad thing in the circumstances.

But that’s not the whole story. The human obsession with patterns and sequences also leads us to imagine patterns in the things we see and hear from faces in clouds (or even wallpaper and embers) to words and phrases in the wind. And the patterns we identify are often far from real. So we get spooked by shadows and led astray by random events that seem to come in order.

Believing nonsense (the illusion of pattern)

So humans kid themselves into believing in nonsense like astrology and bizarre ‘medical’ treatments. We become convinced that bad things come in threes or that because two unpleasant things have happened already this morning we’re in for ‘one of those days’. We see patterns everywhere. What’s worse – once we hit upon a ‘pattern’ (real or imagined) other processes known as ‘selective abstraction’ and ‘confirmation bias’ tend to keep us convinced that we’re right. We’ll cover confirmation bias and selective abstraction later. For now it’s enough to know that both of these mental modules serve to persuade us that we’re right and to resist self doubt.

This process of imagining patterns, confirmation bias and stubbornness can have extremely unfortunate results. It leaves us open to persuasion. That’s why the most skilled and influential political speakers give three illustrations of their most important points? They know that three is the magic number to create the illusion of a pattern and that once established in the mind of the listener that illusion will be hard to break.

Human gullibility

The truth is that our species’ love of patterns, our obsession with trying to place everything around us into recognisable, pre-existing categories makes us extremely vulnerable.

This is the aspect of our evolved psychology, perhaps more than any other that makes us gullible and easy to manipulate. It leads to superstition and the prevalence of people who’d never dream of playing an important sporting match without their ‘lucky’ cricket box or without reciting their favourite pre-match prayer. It’s why the actor John Wayne always insisted on carrying the same ‘six-shooter’ in every Western. He’d created an assumption of cause and effect that had nothing to do with reality.

It’s also why the primitive cause and effect assumption of tribal weather Gods eventually merged into a single deity called Jahweh and ultimately morphed into the three modern versions of the God of Abraham (see The evolution of God by Robert Wright).

The illusion of control

This obsession with patterns and ‘lucky’ ritual has led to self-important, metaphysical or religious rituals from the repetitive behaviours of obsessive-compulsive disorders to the ‘hail Mary’ of Roman Catholicism, the ingestion of ‘transubstantiated’ flesh in Holy Communion and the masochism of the flagelant. In each case the assumption is the same:

If I get the ritual right I (or God/the universe) can influence the world, the weather, other people or whatever to behave as I would like them to.

It’s also why gamblers kid themselves that the next random throw of the dice is ‘due’ to fall on a 6 or why their lottery numbers are bound to come up soon. It’s because of an entirely baseless assumption that essentially random events follow patterns that exist only in the human mind.

 

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How we know what to rely upon

Lots of people seem to be very confused about the nature of evidence and the meanings of terms such as ‘theory’, ‘hypothesis’, ‘science’ and ‘nonsense’. So I’ve put together a little table that I hope will be helpful. It might clear up a few misunderstandings.

For example the phrase ‘only a theory’ doesn’t mean it’s not reliable. In fact, in the case of very strong theories such as the theories of evolution or gravity it’s as close to fact as cautious, scientific convention will allow. Creationists beware – you have no idea how silly you appear when you use that particular phrase to try to knock down Darwinian evolution.

I’ve made some amendments to the table below. This is because some people have challenged the ranking of the examples I used in the original. Since the point of this post is to outline the hierarchy itself I’m quite happy to use different illustrations. I may yet make further amendments in the light of scientific evidence for reincarnation which I have been promised and am hoping will actually materialise. Incidentally that’s the main advantage of scientific thinking methods over ‘Just so’ stories like creationism. Scientific thinking involves accepting when the evidence demonstrates that we have been wrong and changing our minds accordingly. That’s why scientific understanding moves on whereas creationism (for example) is essentially making the same, tired arguments that the Rev. William Paley first came up with 200 years ago.

Anyway – I hope this table helps clear up some issues for the hard-of-understanding among us.

If your browser only displays half the table just double click it to see the whole thing.

Evidence hierarchy 2