Finding Patterns

I suspect a lot of us, when talking on the phone, find ourselves playing little mindless games on the computer.  No concentration required; it gives our hands and the idle part of our brains something to do.  It has replaced doodling.

My favorite is a simplistic matching game involving scrambled tiles.  No strategy involved; it’s mostly a matter of luck.  I’ve been very impressed with the software.  Once I’ve made a move, it instantly calculates if I’ve run out of legal moves.

Some months ago, I noticed that the game was getting a lot harder to win.  Matches were much more often buried and it was far easier to paint oneself into a corner.  I’m sure the author had some good reason for making the game more challenging, but I found it more frustrating than challenging.

Apparently, I was not the only one who felt that way, because a couple of months later the game got appreciably easier.  I was winning a lot more and stalemates were occurring much later in the game.

As it happens, I’d had a e-mail correspondence with the author once upon a time, so I sent him a note saying I was enjoying seeing the effects of his program changes.

He sent me a note back explaining that he hadn’t put in any updates in about a year.  He also gave me a new word: Apophenia – finding apparent patterns in random data.

We humans are pattern-finding animals.  Over the millennia, we have depended on our pattern- detecting talent to find food to eat and to avoid becoming somebody else’s dinner.  We are very good at finding patterns.

Unfortunately, we are also very bad at detecting the fact that some of the patterns we think we see are wrong.

From an evolutionary standpoint, that actually makes sense.  There was a certain rustling sound in the bushes and good old Charlie got eaten by a tiger.  So now, thinking that rustling sound we hear in the bushes is a tiger may keep us from going into the bushes.  If we are right, it saved our lives.  In other words, the reward is great.  On the other hand, if we are wrong, the penalty is small.  Big positive reward, small negative consequence.  Evolution is not going to be pushing us very hard to detect when we are wrong.  It will be pushing us to keep on imagining tigers.

In general, this doesn’t seem to be such a bad thing.  After all, this peculiar bias toward credulousness and away from skepticism has helped get us where we are today.

Yeah, but…

Michael Shermer, talking about our weird thinking about random events, wrote that what humans do is “infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency.”  And the result is, we are more likely to imagine that tiger in the bushes if we already feel threatened.  Think of waking up in the middle of the night, thinking you’d heard some noise.  The more you lie there, wide awake, the more strange noises you hear.  Pretty soon, if you’re not careful, the night becomes full of  “long-leggedy beasties,” all slavering over your quivering carcase.

At the moment, a lot of places in this world are full of people who are feeling threatened.  A logical corollary of this is there are a lot of people imagining tigers right now.  They look out into the world and they see patterns.  They see conspiracies.  If you are a Muslim, you see conspiracies of America and Israel and Europe, all working against Islam.  If you are an Israeli, you see Iran allying itself with Russia and one billion Muslims, all crying, “Perish Judea!”  If you are an American, you see a world full of terrorists, all of whom hate America and intend to destroy us.  These notions get in the way of making peace and removing the threats that started it all.

But it can be much local than that.  Some people watched 9/11 and said to themselves, “That’s no fire.  That’s explosives!  Must be the CIA.”  Or it must be the Jews.  Or it must be the One World Government folks.  Or.  Or.  Or.

Pick your paranoia, and you will see confirmation for it wherever you look.  No one guy committed the Oklahoma City bombing.  Not possible.  And certainly no one guy killed Kennedy.  Just look at all those pundits and politicians appearing on TV, all swearing it’s true.  Doesn’t that prove it’s false?  Did you see that fake moon landing video with the American flag waving in the breeze when there’s no air on the moon to move it?  Don’t you see?  Don’t you?

Two more of our human traits work together to insure that a conspiracy theory, once implanted, will germinate and grow.  One is called confirmation bias.  Once we’ve decided we see a pattern, everything that catches our attention tends to confirm that pattern and even widen it.  Once you’ve decided the moon landings were faked, every photograph and every narrative looks obviously fraudulent.  Besides, what with the web, it’s fatally easy to find a whole club of equally paranoid people to feed you more and more confirmations.

Then there’s cognitive dissonance.  That the acute discomfort we feel when we are confronted with two contradictory beliefs.  Logically, one would expect an individual faced with such a situation to abandon one of those beliefs as false and keep the other.  But that’s not what humans do.  Instead, we either warp both beliefs so that they can somehow coexist, or we simply compartmentalize them and never think of them at the same time.  So we can happily keep gathering “proofs” of our conspiracy theories while keeping faith with something completely opposite.  Sure, my congressman is a good guy, but congress is intentionally destroying America.  I’ve got a son, proudly serving his country, but watch out for those black helicopters.  Sure, the Holocaust really happened, but we all know the Jews control the world.  And didn’t Edward Snowden prove I was right all along?

So what are we to do?  The more people feel threatened, the more they see their children’s future looking worse, the more they decide that if they are powerless, somebody must be very powerful, the more likely they are to mistrust everyone who doesn’t agree with them and assume those people are working against them.  Sadly, there are lots of pundits and leaders who make their living telling the fearful they are right to be afraid.

Truly, I don’t have an answer to the problem.  To me, almost all conspiracy theories reside outside the realm of credibility.  I know some conspiracy believers.  I try not to argue with them, as I know it is futile.  But I must confess I have an urge to shake them hard and say, “Take a large dose of common sense and call me in the morning.”

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