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Our human ability to recognize patterns is both a great strength as well as a debilitating weakness as seen in our tendency for ‘conspiracy thinking’. This article is another covering the biases that both aid and harm us. The preceding article covered our “Normalcy Bias”: our tendency to freeze when faced with impending disaster.
I wrote, “Our brains are incredible and remarkable organs. There’s still no computer capable of matching the human brain. However, that doesn’t mean we are free of biases. Many of our biases are useful in everyday situations by providing us with short-cuts and assisting our decision-making process.
“Unfortunately, these helpful biases can also be dangerous when used in the wrong situation. Addressing and confronting our biases and fears is the most important factor for survival and the first step in doing so is recognizing them.”
Much of the following is shamelessly stolen from The Great Courses’ lectures by Professor Steven Novella from the Yale School of Medicine titled, “Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills” particularly Lecture 5, “Pattern Recognition – Seeing What’s Not There” as well as several other sources.
Conspiracy thinking is based on a combination of several interesting psychological phenomena such as pareidolia, data mining, hyperactive agency detection, essence and the ‘lottery fallacy’ all working together to deceive us. I will examine each of these and show how they lead to erroneous conspiracy thinking. Writing in neurologicablog Professor Novella says, “Knowledge of how the human brain works helps us think better – to be more skeptical and avoid error.”
The human brain is a massive parallel processor with many connecting neural networks that enables us to make connections between ideas, visual patterns, words, objects and events. When it comes to seeing patterns, we are so good at seeing them that we sometimes see things that are not really there.
Professor Novella says, “Our brains are able to process representative and abstract thinking, such as metaphors. Art is a good example of this human talent for making abstract connections or thinking creatively.”
“Additionally, we imbue meaning and emotion into the abstract patterns that we see, which makes the patterns seem real and meaningful. In fact, our brains are wired to assign meaning and emotions to things.”
In other words, not only do we make countless connections, but we feel things about those connections. This emotional content makes the patterns we perceive seem real and meaningful because our brains are wired to assign meaning and emotions.
Reality Testing: A cognitive process by which our brain compares any new information to its internal model of reality to see if the new information makes sense.
This pattern recognition is filtered through a distinct part of our brain called “reality testing”. We perceive many patterns around us and we run these perceptions through a reality-testing algorithm. We ask, “Does it make sense?” Does it agree with our internal model of reality? We each have a model of how we think the world is and how it works. Any new belief is tested against this internal model of reality.
If it fits then it feels right; it makes sense so we accept it. However, if it conflicts with our model of reality then we think it does not make sense and is probably not true or we are suspicious of it.
When we dream, our reality testing module is less active as when we are fully awake. Consequently, bizarre things can happen in our dreams that our dreaming selves accept because our dream state does not have the reality testing filter that our waking selves have. Yet, upon awakening and remembering our dreams, they no longer make sense.
Psychosis: A psychiatric condition characterized by impaired reality testing.
The pathological condition called ‘psychosis’ is a result of impaired or indequate reality testing. This decreased ability to test patterns makes these patterns seem far more real or compelling than they actually are. Even bizarre patterns can seem real or compelling even if they require ‘magical thinking’.
Pareidolia: The tendency to see patterns in random noise – or example, seeing a human face in the random features of a cloud.
The phenomenon called Pareidolia gives us the ability to see patterns in randomness. You might remember looking at clouds and seeing faces or animals or other familiar objects in the random shape of clouds or the bark of a tree or the pattern of leaves or the drape of a fabric. We realize that these patterns are completely random, but they still look familiar. A healthy mind does not think that someone is deliberately sculpting the clouds or bark or leaves to look like this.
Visual pareidolia is the most obvious example of general pareidolia in which the brain seeks patterns to fit the stimuli. Our brains construct what we think we see and remember while trying to make a pattern fit to patterns its already familiar with. It is noteworthy that once we see a pattern in random stimuli, it is difficult or impossible, to NOT see it.
It is not uncommon for a permanent stain, like the bank window in Florida to be ignored for a long time. Then, when someone sees the pattern of the Virgin Mary, it becomes common knowledge and anyone else looking at the stain sees the Virgin Mary. Believers then imbue it with profound meaning and it’s not unusual that it turns it into an industry.
There are frequent reports of images like Jesus or Mary on tortilla chips or the grilled-cheese sandwich sold on eBay as “Jesus in the Cheese”. Another example is the geological phenomenon at Medicine Hat, Canada; a compelling image of an Indian face in profile.
Of course, the face isn’t really there but the brain perceives it as such.
Many so-called ‘ghost” photographs are based on pareidolia. A wispy cloud or a patch of fog, or using a camera flash in a dusty environment can result in an over-exposed, cloudy image that our brains perceive as a face or the outline of a person. These are all instances of pareidolia; the brain’s tendency to see patterns in randomness.
The human face is the most familiar pattern that we tend to impose because a large portion of our visual cortex is dedicated to seeing faces. As social creatures, it is very important for us to recognize individuals quickly and easily.
Infants have an inborn preference for looking at faces rather than other equally complicated stimuli. We can recognize tens of thousands of faces at a glance. “This preference for the patterns of the human face results in pareidolia that frequently results in a face.”
Still another example is the low-resolution image of a geological formation that looked like a human face on Mars taken by a NASA probe. Yet, it’s just an illusion. A subsequent NASA mission took higher resolution pictures of the same structure that showed it was a normal geological formation that does NOT resemble a face.
Patterns can also have emotional meaning to us. We have a lot of hard-wiring in our brains that enable us to infer emotions from minimal visual cues. “We understand, for example, the emotion that a stick figure or cartoon character is supposed to have; we can personify animals and cartoon characters and imbue them with the full range of human emotions.”
A skilled artist with just a few lines can convey emotion that will make a stick figure that can seem happy or angry or fearful. Another example of this are ’emoticons’ used when texting or emailing to compensate for the lack of emotion conveyed by just text alone.
We rely heavily on non-verbal cues. When we’re with someone, we can tell by voice inflection and facial expression whether they’re sincere or sarcastic. Text doesn’t convey this but a minimal number of keyboard characters can convey a smiley face or a wink or surprise or many other emotions. I’ve often said that we really need a sarcasm font.
Emotions often have different meanings in different cultures. For instance, Eastern cultures pay more attention to the eyes whereas Western cultures pay more attention to the mouth. Eastern cultures vary the eye shape and Western cultures vary the mouth to convey emotion.
Audio Pareidolia: In addition to visual stimuli, we also have audio stimuli that enable us to create patterns called audio pareidolia. The brain has a limited number of phonemes or components of spoken speech that it can distinguish. We learn most of these by age four after which we sort the speech we hear into one of our learned phonemes.
Audio pareidolia is partially responsible for ‘foreign’ accents. People who learn one language may be less sensitive to other languages phonemes that are not present in their own language. This makes it difficult to properly distinguish these new phonemes thus giving rise to their accents. The brain tends to slot into one of its finite phonemes that are mostly locked into place at an early age with very little wiggle room.
Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP): The phenomenon of apparent words or phrases found in audio recordings of allegedly haunted locations. Believers ascribe EVP to ghost phenomena, but they are more easily explained as audio pareidolia.
Using the phenomenon of EVP, believers think they can tap into the spirit world by listening to static on a recording or electronic device. They will listen to this static until a word(s) seem to pop out.
Data Mining: The process of sifting through large sets of data and looking for apparent patterns. This is a legitimate way to generate hypotheses – but not of confirming them – because this process lends itself to finding illusory patterns.
Electronic Voice Phenomenon is a form of data mining that analyzes large amounts of data seeking random patterns that occur by chance. Professor Novella says, “Believers in EVP make the false assumption that a phrase they hear is real and that some spirit or ghost is actually saying those words. Psychologically, it has been demonstrated that your brain is imposing those words onto a random pattern of noise.
A similar type of audio pareidolia is ‘backward masking’ or listening to music backwards seeking secret messages. This was popular years ago when analog deck-to-deck tape recording enabled tapes to be listened to backwards. So popular did this become that musicians would sometimes deliberately insert backward music or messages, but, unless it was done deliberately, it was simply random noise that the brain fit to a familiar audio pattern.
We tend to be highly suggestible in this regard. It is easier to hear what you’re supposed to hear after you’ve been told that’s what you’re supposed to hear.
The Baby Cuddle & Coo Doll was pulled from store shelves because the random cooing sounds were interpreted in nefarious ways such as “Islam is the light” or “Satan is king”.
Once the reports became public, people would hear the phrases because they now knew what to listen for.
Data mining can be dangerous when it’s subconscious rather than deliberate because we don’t realize were doing it. We see the pattern, but overlook the extraneous data it’s buried in. This is known as the Law of Truly Large Numbers where we must be careful how we phrase a question about the odds. We might ask, “What are the chances of winning the lottery?” If the answer is many millions to one, we might conclude, given such enormous odds, that it could not happen by chance alone. On the other hand, a better question would be, “What are the odds of anyone winning the lottery?” The answer is that the odds are very good that someone will win it.
We’re sometimes told that there are no stupid questions; only stupid answers. Don’t believe it. In fact, there are stupid questions and that’s why it’s important to ask the right question. We can ask the wrong question with random coincidences as well. “What are the odds this coincidence could occur?” The odds are enormous and unlikely to happen so this can lead us astray. The right question is, “What are the odds any coincidence could occur?” The odds are very good and, in fact, coincidences should happen regularly.
This is why data mining can be a fallacious way of thinking. We aren’t aware that we are mining the data of all possible coincidences and we see only the patterns that emerge as random coincidences.
Astrology falls into the data mining trap. Astrological researchers sift through actuarial data seeking confirmation of astrological signs. They may conclude that Virgos are accident prone because they have more car accidents than other astrological signs. However, they’re seeking any possible match – any outcome to any astrological sign. By odds alone, there will be random noise that generates some patterns. Professor Novella writes, “When astrological researchers use a completely independent set of data, there is no consistent pattern with astrological signs. Astrology is based almost entirely on this false pattern recognition and data mining.”
Hyperactive agency detection: The human tendency to detect a conscious agent behind natural or random behavior or events – for example, believing that random events are a conspiracy to punish us.
Another concept related to data mining that can lead us astray and is a very important component of conspiracy thinking is called ‘hyperactive agency detection’ (HADD). “Agency’ refers to something acting on its own will. We tend to identify agency when something acts as if it had agency or a will to act. For instance, when we see an animated robot we emotionally react as if it were alive even though we know it is not, but it acted as if it had will.
We tend to assume agency even when randomness is sufficient. That’s why it’s called hyperactive because we tend to err on the side of feeling as if there’s agency even when there obviously isn’t.
Professor Novella writes, “Evolutionary explanations might suggest that we evolved from ancestors who had hyperactive agency detection.” Imagine our ancestors on the plains of Africa who heard the tall grass rustling. Those who assumed it was just the wind likely did not survive to produce offspring. On the other hand, those who assumed the rustling was caused by a predator and then ran to safety were more likely to survive and thus produced offspring with a tendency to assume agency.
In other words, we evolved from ancestors who had hyperactive agency detection because that was a successful survival strategy. It was advantageous to err on the side of caution and assume that the predator was present. We are descendents of paranoid ancestors that had hyperactive agency detection and who were thus less likely to be eaten by predators.
Justin L. Barrett writes, “This HADD may confer a survival benefit even if it is over-sensitive: it is better to avoid an imaginary predator than be killed by a real one. This would tend to encourage belief in ghosts and spirits.” Or, as one reader commented, “it’s far better in terms of survival to mistake a tree trunk for a bear than the other way around.”
The Professor writes that, “In addition to hyperactive agency detection, we have a tendency to detect the essence of various things, which makes them what they are.” This is a kind of ‘magical thinking’ that things have an essence or individuality which makes them what they are. We have a tendency to imbue agents with essence.
An example is the way children respond to toys. How a child feels about a toy determines whether they imbue it with essence or not. Children understand that most toys are just things and will gladly accept a substitute. However, if a child has a favorite toy, they will imbue it with an essence that a duplicate toy does not have and they’ll refuse to accept a substitute.
Novella writes that, “Evolutionarily, it makes sense that, for example, a parent would not accept an apparent exact replica or duplicate of their child; instead they would want to have their own child. Therefore there seems to be an adaptive advantage to having this sense of individuality and essence.”
It might even be said that HADD is important to the development of religion. Let’s face it; God is supposed to be the ultimate invisible agent responsible for all natural and random events.
Problems arise when we see agency that does not exist. We see agency in how individual objects behave, but we also see agency collectively behind events. We may see an ‘invisible hand’ controlling events. This can lead to conspiracy thinking when we see a pattern that connects ‘pattern recognition’ and ‘agency detection’.
We sometimes see a pattern of events that we conclude cannot be coincidence because the pattern seems too compelling to be coincidental. Problems can arise from assuming that all patterns are real and further assuming a hidden agency at work.
We fall prey to the ‘lottery fallacy’ of underestimating how often such patterns should occur by chance alone. Then we further assume that there must be an agent behind that pattern; a conspiracy, an organization or some power behind it.
We fall prey to the compelling emotional power of essence. We also fall prey to magical thinking; that there’s some magical power or some force of nature making things happen the way they are because otherwise we wouldn’t see this pattern.
The ability to see patterns, even abstract patterns is one of the human brain’s greatest strengths. It gives us our creativity, our problem-solving abilities as well as the ability to detect commonality among different things. However, it is also one of our greatest weaknesses just as many of our brain’s abilities are a double edged sword.
Novella says, “They are great strengths but also the source of great flaws if we are not aware that is how our brains work.” He writes, “We need to filter for hyperactive pattern recognition and agency detection through our reality-testing filter, but we also need to understand that pattern recognition, agency detection, belief in essence, and data mining conspire together to create the powerful illusion that we are seeing something real in the world when it’s just randomness. Emotionally, an illusion might be very compelling, but we need to use critical thinking skills to systematically test apparent patterns to truly know if an illusion is real or not.”
Admittedly this is easier said than done. We all have a reality-testing filter to one degree or another, but it’s often not enough when we are overwhelmed by advertising, 24 hour news, propaganda and a dumbed-down education system. Schools say they teach critical thinking skills, but they don’t really. In fact they don’t teach much of anything that’s useful like budgeting, investing, monetary policy, currency theory, etc.
We live in the ‘information age’ so overwhelmed with data that, in a sense, we are all autistic to a degree. It’s all too easy to shut ourselves off from the world which threatens to overwhelm us and escape into oblivion and self-medication.
It’s to your benefit to improve your reality-testing filter. You know that the two-footed wolves will try to take advantage of you, but it’s much more difficult to avoid well-intentioned but misguided people if you have a faulty or underdeveloped reality-testing filter. Consider the heartache and tragedies wrought by such movements as the Millerites or David Koresh or Solar Temple or Jim Jones and many other deadly cults. Much of what we think and feel derives from subconscious brain processes of which we are obviously not consciously aware. Hopefully this article has given you some ammunition to recognize these illusory patterns of pareidolia, data mining, hyperactive agency detection and superstitious thinking.
What Can You Do?
What else can you do? By far the biggest bang for your buck is trashing the TV that’s rotting your brain. Replace TV, videos and movies with text which is much more conducive to honing your critical thinking skills instead of soaking up rapid fire images and sounds like a brainless sponge. Replace the ass media’s so-called ‘news’ with alternate news sources and emancipate yourself from the slavery of propaganda by learning to think for yourself. Like any skill, the more you do it, the easier and better it gets.
Learn to increase your skepticism to help you identify not only conspiracy thinking but myriads of other fallacies and deceptions. You don’t need to be an atheist to glean valuable insights from websites like this and this and the Art of Positive Skepticism.
Increase your knowledge of the biases we are prone to such as the “Normalcy Bias”: and other such psychological deceptions. Read up on the various logical fallacies so you can recognise them when someone tries to use them to your disadvantage. I listen to the Learning Company’s lectures while I’m driving (hint: buy them on sale). In fact, that’s how I stumbled across the idea for this post.
It’s useful too, to occasionally see blatant examples of conspiracy thinking to hone our critical thinking skills to help identify such fallacious reasoning. Read tabloids like the National Inquirer sometimes or watch some of the disaster porn videos on websites like Before Its News. Just remember, it’s entertainment, not real.
So now you’re better equipped to understand and detect the deceptive side of our brains. Like most patterns, let’s hope that once you’ve read this you’ll find it difficult not to see.
July 29, 2014
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