Michael Shermer: The pattern behind self-deception from TED 2010

July 2, 2010 § 3 Comments

…or “My Mind is Playing Tricks on Me.”

There is more information in the world around us at any given moment than we realise. To prove my point, just stop for a moment. Have a look around you. What can you see? What can you hear? What can you smell, feel or taste? Start writing down everything. Yes everything. Before too long your list of information will stretch onto a second page, and a third, and so on. It’s ridiculous really just how much information is around us, because at any given moment there are so many “things” around you all the time, interacting and changing. Can you imagine a life where we were unable to distinguish between which of these sensations were valuable to us and which were “junk information”? Our whole existence would be doing just that; noticing stuff.

It is naturally advantageous for us to be able to block out certain information and to identify useful patterns and events. We seek patterns in our lives and in the objects around us and relegate the rest to being unnoticed, or at least not consciously noticed.

All animals are pattern seeking machines. We look for patterns at all moments of life because our lives actually depend upon making distinctions between junk information and the useful pieces of information which are useful to us. We have evolved to become selective in the information we act upon and the information we simply take for granted.

Michael Shermer in the TED talk below talks about pattern recognition and the natural want to believe.

He talked about false positives and false negatives and how we tend to, to be on the safe side, make false positives over the potentially disastrous consequences of making a false negative judgment and possible being harmed. One consequence of our natural tendency to make a false positive identification of a pattern is paredolia, where we see faces and objects in random patterns, or in totally unrelated objects. This is an example where the brain takes over and sees the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast or the face of Jesus in a tree stump.

I’d like to elaborate in this a bit. People who tend to find these “signs” in toast or the word “Allah” in Arabic on the side of a goldfish are already looking for something. Looking for a “sign” or a “prophecy” or a “divine intervention” or whatever it may be, and they are almost certainly religious people to begin with. So if someone already has a predisposition to find a “sign” then they will most likely find something somewhere.

For example if I consciously look for a face or a frog or an aeroplane in a stucco wall, if I look long enough or hard enough, I will most certainly find one. That doesn’t mean to say that my identification is this object in a random pattern is actually there, it simply means I have made a decision that it’s there and will find it. This is another example of a false positive. I see cats in the wallpaper patterns at my home. There are no cats, only stylised vines and leaves.

So we don’t always see these patterns because 99% of the time it is useless
Junk information and can be discarded as such. If we saw all the potential patterns in all the potential places a pattern might be, we would do nothing else. We are not evolved to notice everything, so we don’t.

Scientific method aims to get rid of both false positives and false negatives, and leave us with the real information minus the junk, which is why when looking at claims of paredolia we can attribute it to a trick of the mind when the facts point in that direction rather thank an “act of god”. The same can be said for many examples of the paranormal or the divine.

We are now better able to see and monitor things in our environment than we could previously , and can account for the shifts in the wind or the way a loaf was kneaded, or the growth patterns of certain plants or animals to discover the cause of these visions. And then there is always random chance to throw into the mix.

In any case, watch Michael Shermer’s talk and enjoy. It’s not only informative but quite enjoyable too.


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§ 3 Responses to Michael Shermer: The pattern behind self-deception from TED 2010

  • mythicsushi says:

    Seeing patterns and meaning where there supposedly is none sounds a lot like art. And maybe a bit of religion and superstition, too.

    I think anyone can “see” things, such as the pattern of a spaceship in a wall or some company’s logo in fried eggs, but most of us don’t take it seriously. It’s amazing when people are able to actually sell toast with the face of St. Peter and stuff like that.

    One question: how exactly do people know that the “face” they’re seeing in their toast is the Virgin Mary? Do people mistake medieval paintings for eyewitness visual representations?

    • Well that’s the interesting thing, people assign “St Peter” to a face, because subconsciously they are looking for something that maybe St Peter is claimed to offer, or the Virgin Mary, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I always think the Jesus paredolia looks more like Santa or the very white Jesus in the American fridge-magnet representations we see these days.

  • Kelley says:

    In many cases, the ability to recognize patterns is an evolutionary advantage. It fuels our ability to recognize cause-and-effect and act upon it.

    Unfortunately, it also fuels the “everything happens for a reason” mentality. It’s very easy for people to confuse causation with correlation. Even aware of this, I find myself falling into the trap a lot of times. All I can do – and all we can encourage in others – is continually ask questions and exercise critical thinking skills. Once one is aware it is easier to avoid making such mistakes, although I don’t think one is truly ever exempt.

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