Oct 03 2008

Hyperactive Pattern Recognition

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People like patterns. More specifically, we have a need to feel a sense of control over ourselves and our world, a perceived prerequisite to control is understanding, and we seek patterns in order to make sense of the world. As a result we tend toward hyperactive pattern recognition.

Understanding of the role and power of pattern recognition – especially seeing patterns that are not really there – has become a core tool in the skeptic’s toolbox. Skepticism in part is the study of how people confidently arrive at false conclusions. Skepticism is the pathology of belief. Seeing patterns that are not real, meaning they are illusory, is a major contributor to false beliefs.

It also takes many forms. Visually this phenomenon is known as pareidolia – seeing a face in the clouds, or the outline of the virgin Mary in a window stain. There is also auditory pareidolia – hearing words in static or random noise. Some ghost hunters claim electronic voice phenomena (EVP) as evidence for spirits, but they are just listening to hours of recording seeking illusory auditory patterns.

Superstitions have their roots in pattern recognition. A baseball pitcher might notice, for example, that he pitched better than average on a day when he forgot to change his underwear. That’s a pattern. So he doesn’t change his underwear for the next game and also pitches well – the pattern is confirmed. He now is convinced of the fabulous powers of his magical dirty underwear, and he dare not change them lest his pitching suffer. Of course, the magic does not always work, and lucky underwear can go sour and become cursed underwear without notice. This is superstitious thinking – inventing magical rules ad hoc to impose a pattern and explanation on unpredictable events. It is a desperate grasp for control over the uncontrollable.

Conspiracy thinking is another form of pattern recognition – seeking a pattern among disconnected events. Conspiracy thinking also assigns dark motives in others, and it seeks the invisible hand workind behind the scenes. Conspiracy thinking is diametrically opposed to the simple wisdom that “stuff happens.” The conspiracy theorist does not believe that stuff just happens – rather everything happens because someone, somewhere specifically wanted it to for some dark or selfish purpose.

Psychologists recognize the common thread among all these phenomena, calling them illusory pattern preception. A new study seeks to find a common cause to all these various forms of illusory pattern perception, and the study authors think they have found it – the need for control.

Jennifer A. Whitson and Adam D. Galinsky published in Science the results of six separate experiments on different forms of pattern perception – pareidolia, superstitions, and conspiracy thinking, and found that all were increased when a sense of control was decreased. Here is a description of one such experiment:

In one experiment, the researchers asked 41 undergraduates to recall a situation in which they’d lacked control (such as being a passenger in a car accident) and another group to recall a situation in which they’d had full control (such as going into an exam well-prepared). Then the subjects read passages describing an event preceded by an action that may or may not have influenced the event. One passage asked them to imagine that they were successful marketers whose ideas were rejected after they failed to perform their customary ritual of stomping the ground three times before the meeting. The subjects who previously recalled an in-control experience were more likely to write this off as mere coincidence than were those who’d recalled being out of control…

They also found that self affirming decreased or eliminated this effect. In other words, if subjects were made to reflect upon something important in their lives prior to the experiment, the effect disappeared – they were no more likely to see illusory patterns.

This study is consistent with the current consensus based upon prior research – that seeing illusory patterns is primarily about control. But this study ties together multiple different types of illusory patterns with one experimental design and confirms that there is a common motivational thread that runs through all of them.

Well-read skeptics are not likely to be surprised by this result, although it is a welcome addition to the literature – one to keep bookmarked.

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