Tag Archives: Pattern

Believers in conspiracy theories and the paranormal are more likely to see “illusory patterns”

By Emma Young via The British Psychological Society – Research Digest

Irrational beliefs – unfounded, unscientific and illogical assumptions about the world – are widespread among “the population of normal, mentally sane adults” note the authors of a new study in European Journal of Social Psychology. It’s been proposed that they arise from a mistaken perception of patterns in the world. But though this idea is popular among psychologists, there’s been surprisingly little direct evidence in favour of it. The new work, led by Jan-Willem van Prooijen at the Free University of Amsterdam, helps to fill the void.

Pattern perception is a crucial cognitive ability. It allows us to identify meaningful relationships between events – such as “red traffic light means danger” or “drinking water quenches thirst”. When people join the dots between events that are in fact unrelated (I wore red socks and aced my exam – they are “lucky socks”), they engage in so-called illusory pattern perception.

To explore whether an adherence to conspiracy theories or a belief in the supernatural really are grounded in illusory pattern perception, the researchers devised a series of studies.
First, they assessed belief in existing, well-known – and also fictitious – conspiracy theories in a group of 264 American adults. The participants were asked, for example, to indicate, on a scale of 1 to 9, how strongly they believed in the statement: “The US government had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks”. Their belief in the supernatural was evaluated using a scale that measured agreement with statements like “I think I could learn to read other people’s minds if I wanted to”.

When shown the results of a series of randomly generated coin tosses, people who scored relatively highly on these two scales were more likely to mistakenly perceive patterns – they believed that the series of heads and tails wasn’t random even though it was. “These findings are the first to directly suggest a relationship between belief in conspiracy theories and pattern perception, and [to] conceptually replicate this relationship for supernatural beliefs,” the researchers wrote.

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Related: Connecting the dots: Illusory pattern perception predicts belief in conspiracies and the supernatural

Coincidences: Remarkable or Random?

Most improbable coincidences likely result from play of random events. The very nature of randomness assures that combing random data will yield some pattern.

By Bruce Martin via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

“You don’t believe in telepathy?” My friend, a sober professional, looked askance. “Do you?” I replied. “Of course. So many times I’ve been out for the evening and suddenly became worried about the kids. Upon calling home, I’ve learned one is sick, hurt himself, or having nightmares. How else can you explain it?”

CoincidenceSuch episodes have happened to us all and it’s common to hear the words, “It couldn’t be just coincidence.” Today the explanation many people reach for involves mental telepathy or psychic stirrings. But should we leap so readily into the arms of a mystic realm? Could such events result from coincidence after all?

There are two features of coincidences not well known among the public. First, we tend to overlook the powerful reinforcement of coincidences, both waking and in dreams, in our memories. Non-coincidental events do not register in our memories with nearly the same intensity. Second, we fail to realize the extent to which highly improbable events occur daily to everyone. It is not possible to estimate all the probabilities of many paired events that occur in our daily lives. We often tend to assign coincidences a lesser probability than they deserve.

However, it is possible to calculate the probabilities of some seemingly improbable events with precision. These examples provide clues as to how our expectations fail to agree with reality.

Coincident Birthdates

Happy Birthday_150pxIn a random selection of twenty-three persons there is a 50 percent chance that at least two of them celebrate the same birthdate. Who has not been surprised at learning this for the first time? The calculation is straightforward. First find the probability that everyone in a group of people have different birthdates (X) and then subtract this fraction from one to obtain the probability of at least one common birthdate in the group (P), P = 1 – X. Probabilities range from 0 to 1, or may be expressed as 0 to 100%. For no coincident birthdates a second person has a choice of 364 days, a third person 363 days, and the nth person 366 – n days. So the probability for all different birthdates becomes:


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Why People Believe Invisible Agents Control the World

A Skeptic’s take on souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens and other invisible powers that be

Michael ShermerBy Michael Shermer via Scientific American

Souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, government conspirators, and all manner of invisible agents with power and intention are believed to haunt our world and control our lives. Why?

Our human tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise causes us to see this face on Mars.

The answer has two parts, starting with the concept of “patternicity,” which I defined in my December 2008 column as the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. Consider the face on Mars, the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich, satanic messages in rock music. Of course, some patterns are real. Finding predictive patterns in changing weather, fruiting trees, migrating prey animals and hungry predators was central to the survival of Paleolithic hominids.

The problem is that we did not evolve a baloney-detection device in our brains to discriminate between true and false patterns. So we make two types of errors: a type I error, or false positive, is believing a pattern is real when it is not; a type II error, or false negative, is not believing a pattern is real when it is. If you believe that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is just the wind (a type I error), you are more likely to survive than if you believe that the rustle in the grass is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator (a type II error). Because the cost of making a type I error is less than the cost of making a type II error and because there is no time for careful deliberation between patternicities in the split-second world of predator-prey interactions, natural selection would have favored those animals most likely to assume that all patterns are real.

But we do something other animals do not do. As large-brained hominids with a developed cortex and a theory of mind—the capacity to be aware of such mental states as desires and intentions in both ourselves and others—we infer agency behind the patterns we observe in a practice I call “agent­icity”: coincidences there are no_250pxthe tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents. We believe that these intentional agents control the world, sometimes invisibly from the top down (as opposed to bottom-up causal randomness). Together patternicity and agent­icity form the cognitive basis of shamanism, paganism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, and all modes of Old and New Age spiritualisms.

Agenticity carries us far beyond the spirit world. The Intelligent Designer is said to be an invisible agent who created life from the top down. Aliens are often portrayed as powerful beings coming down from on high to warn us of our impending self-destruction. Conspiracy theories predictably include hidden agents at work behind the scenes, puppet masters pulling political and economic strings as we dance to the tune of the Bilderbergers, the Roth­schilds, the Rockefellers or the Illuminati. Even the belief that government can impose top-down measures to rescue the economy is a form of agenticity, with President Barack Obama being touted as “the one” with almost messianic powers who will save us.

There is now substantial evidence from cognitive neuroscience that humans readily find patterns and impart agency to them . . .

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Your Sixth Sense

Perhaps you’ve lived this moment before. Perhaps you’re seeing yourself at a distance, as never before. Anomalous experiences are real and life-changing. That doesn’t mean they occur outside your own head.


By Matthew Hutson via Psychology Today

Chances are, at some point in your life, you’ve felt someone staring at you. Maybe you were at the grocery store.looking-back-over-my-shoulder_300px Maybe walking along the sidewalk. Maybe sitting on a bus. And sure enough, when you turned your head to look, the suspect’s eyes met yours.

You just had an anomalous experience.

The job of the conscious mind is to form a story out of all our sensations and reflections. Life as we experience it is not just a series of unconnected thoughts and events; it’s a coherent narrative unfolding in an orderly universe. But sometimes we have experiences that don’t fit our expectations and may even contradict what science has taught us is possible. In our attempts to accommodate such outlier phenomena, we often turn to unproven forces or entities. We start to believe in the paranormal.

Anomalous experience of this sort ranges from sensing a strange vibe in a room to feeling outside your own body. We often explain such experiences using concepts related to spirits, luck, witchcraft, psychic powers, life energy, or more terrestrial (and extraterrestrial) entities. Such explanations are often more appealing, or at least more intuitive, than blaming an odd experience on a trick of the mind.

astralt_250pxOne of the most common anomalous experiences is the sense of being stared at. When you see someone gazing directly at you, emotions become activated—it can be exciting or comforting or creepy—and this visceral charge can give the impression that gazes transfer energy. Further, if you feel uncomfortable and check to see whether someone is looking at you, your movement may draw attention—confirming your suspicions.

Another common experience is déjà vu, a phenomenon two in three people report. Most of us shrug it off as a mental hiccup. Indeed, researchers propose it’s a sense of familiarity without a recollection of why something is familiar, or perhaps a timing issue in the brain where thoughts are experienced twice because of a slight wiring delay, lending the second occurrence an odd sensation of repetition. But some people believe it’s a glimpse into a past life.

While anomalous experiences may be associated with stressful circumstances, personal pathologies, or cognitive deficits, the experiences themselves may not always be so bad, and may actually be healthy inventions. They’re just our attempts to make sense of a weird situation. After all, there’s nothing the mind likes better than a good story.

Meaningful Coincidences

photoalbum_250pxAlex and Donna Voutsinas were leafing through family photo albums a week before their wedding in 2002 when one picture caught Alex’s eye. In the foreground was Donna, five years old, posing at Disney World with one of the Seven Dwarves. Behind them was Alex’s father pushing a stroller. And in the stroller was Alex. The boy’s family was visiting from Canada, and the two children would not meet until 15 years later. When he saw the photo, Alex said, “I got chills. It was just too much of a coincidence. It was fate.”

Nearly anyone would get chills in such a situation, but it takes a lot less—hearing the same new word twice in an hour, meeting someone who shares our birthday—to make us pause and say, “Well, how about that!” Such moments occur when we spot patterns, an ability (and compulsion) built into the brain from the earliest stages of perception. Pattern-finding lets us make sense of sensory input (those four legs are part of a table) and to predict regularities in our environment (apples fall down, not up; they’re often tasty; and throwing them makes people mad).

Pattern-finding is so central to survival and success that we see patterns everywhere, even in random data—a phenomenon called apophenia. We spot faces in clouds and hear messages in records played backward. And while we expect some level of order in the world, on occasion our pattern-spotting gets away from us and makes a connection we wouldn’t expect. When that happens, we demand, at least subconsciously, an explanation.

It turns out that our favorite kinds of explanations involve “agents”—beings capable of intentional action. The agent could be a person, a god, or a superintelligent robot. We’re biased to blame even simple events on agents—spotting them or their footprints allows us to manage them if they are dangerous: It is better to mistake a twig for a snake than to mistake a snake for a twig.

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