The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer


published December 2008
Noun. The tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise
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Why do people see faces in nature, interpret window stains as human figures, hear voices in random sounds generated by electronic devices or find conspiracies in the daily news? A proximate cause is the priming effect, in which our brain and senses are prepared to interpret stimuli according to an expected model. UFOlogists see a face on Mars. Religionists see the Virgin Mary on the side of a building. Paranormalists hear dead people speaking to them through a radio receiver. Conspiracy theorists think 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration. Is there a deeper ultimate cause for why people believe such weird things? There is. I call it “patternicity,” or the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise.

Traditionally, scientists have treated patternicity as an error in cognition. A type I error, or a false positive, is believing something is real when it is not (finding a nonexistent pattern). A type II error, or a false negative, is not believing something is real when it is (not recognizing a real pattern — call it “apatternicity”). In my 2000 book How We Believe, I argue that our brains are belief engines: evolved patternrecognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature. Sometimes A really is connected to B; sometimes it is not. When it is, we have learned something valuable about the environment from which we can make predictions that aid in survival and reproduction. We are the descendants of those most successful at finding patterns. This process is called association learning and it is fundamental to all animal behavior, from the humble worm C. elegans to H. sapiens.

Unfortunately, we did not evolve a Baloney Detection Network in the brain to distinguish between true and false patterns. We have no error-detection governor to modulate the pattern-recognition engine. (Thus, the need for science with its self-correcting mechanisms of replication and peer review.) But such erroneous cognition is not likely to remove us from the gene pool and would therefore not have been selected against by evolution.

In a September 2008 paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, “The Evolution of Superstitious and Superstition-like Behaviour,” Harvard University biologist Kevin R. Foster and University of Helsinki biologist Hanna Kokko test my theory through evolutionary modeling and demonstrate that whenever the cost of believing a false pattern is real is less than the cost of not believing a real pattern, natural selection will favor patternicity. They begin with the formula pb > c, where a belief may be held when the cost (c) of doing so is less than the probability (p) of the benefit (b). For example, believing that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is only the wind doesn’t cost much, but believing that a dangerous predator is the wind may cost an animal its life.

The problem is that we are very poor at estimating such probabilities, so the cost of believing that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is just the wind is relatively low compared with the opposite. Thus, there would have been a beneficial selection for believing that most patterns are real. Through a series of complex formulas that include additional stimuli (wind in the trees) and prior events (past experience with predators and wind) the authors conclude that “the inability of individuals — human or otherwise — to assign causal probabilities to all sets of events that occur around them will often force them to lump causal associations with non-causal ones. From here, the evolutionary rationale for superstition is clear: natural selection will favour strategies that make many incorrect causal associations in order to establish those that are essential for survival and reproduction.”

In support of a genetic selection model, Foster and Kokko note that “predators only avoid nonpoisonous snakes that mimic a poisonous species in areas where the poisonous species is common,” and that even such simple organisms as “Escherichia coli cells will swim towards physiologically inert methylated aspartate presumably owing to an adaptation to favour true aspartate.”

Such patternicities, then, mean that people believe weird things because of our evolved need to believe nonweird things.

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24 Comments to “Patternicity”

  1. Teri Massia Says:

    I found the article on “Patternicity” very interesting !
    Made me stop and think: – “hey! I see patterns (like faces) in a sorts of things (like wallpaper) all the time” – I thought it was just my artistic (creative) nature and hoped to someday use this “patternicity” habit to assist in my oil painting.
    I have an open mind and thereby have always questioned beliefs, superstitions, teachings etc.
    I’m so glad that I’m not alone in this “free thinking” and the realization that I can not be easily molded because of someone (or something)’s influence. Thank you for such great, thought-provoking writing !

  2. Andrew Kitt Says:

    Ironically, what Shermer refers to as “patternicity” – the ability to recognize patterns – is the hallmark of “intelligence.” Sometimes, it’s even used as the definition.

    Eyesight (or any other sense) is also “find[ing] meaningful patterns in meaningless noise.” Your eyes don’t actually “see” an apple on a table; your brain constructs “apple” from billions of nerve impulses relaying cellular interpretations of light.

    The only differences between “seeing” an image of Jesus on a piece of toast and the image of your mother as she sits across the table from you at dinner are the images’ resolutions and the amount of extraneous data. Would you still be able to recognize your mother if you viewed her through a screen door? How about through two screen doors? You can sit there and wait until she adds more data for you (perhaps she’ll speak, giving you a “meaningless pattern” of air compressions and decompressions – which you *could* interpret as the wind), or you can open those screen doors and see up close if it’s really her.

    Neither false positives nor false negatives exist until someone actually goes outside to check, and sometimes the predator really is in the grass even when we have NO indication at all that it’s out there.

  3. Tom Says:

    As a trader observing data, watching stock charts; I have to laugh at my own foolishness. My industry is all about seeing market “tells” and making projections. Many of these “tells” are described as “Triangle Patterns”; “Head and Shoulders”; even “Trendlines.”

    It is somewhat easy to laugh at “Techincal Analysis”, or using price data to make predictions, however, “Quantitative Analysis” is equally laughable, see AIG, Lehman Bros, Bear Stearns. For example, this morning, The Wall Street Journal has an article about Legg Mason’s Bill Miller, “The Stock Picker’s Defeat”,

  4. Jeff Wesley Says:

    I am an artist and rely on patternicity to create my abstract art and jewelry. It comes natural to me. I can turn it on and off as I need. I would make a wonderful psychic, but it would be hard for me to keep a straight face. Great article.

  5. MsShorTee Says:

    Sure wish I had evolved that ‘Baloney Detection Network’ — would have saved me years of waste following fundamentalism. :)

  6. Doug Says:

    Andrew Kitt’s statement (#2) reminds me of the book “Crashing Through” by Robert Kurson. It tells the story of Michael May, a man who lost his eyesight at age 3, then regained it as an adult. He then saw the world as a collection of colored shapes which he had to decypher before he could “see” the objects. (E.g. “Here’s an orange shape. It’s moving, it’s hairy, it’s licking my hand–oh! It’s my dog.”) It raises the question, is this how we all learned to see as infants?

  7. Kerry Held Says:

    Howdy- I love seeing patterns wherever possible. My wife points out things to me all the time. The thing that she points out the most is that something looks like a monster. If I don’t see it at first, I take the time to find it. It actually happens a lot. I guess the ” monster pattern” is the most common because it’s usually a distorted face or distorted head. Obviously anything distorted is easy to find. I wish I could find Jesus or Mary ( or George Jetson for that matter) in my toast, but it doesn’t happen. Actually I’m on a low carb diet so I don’t do much toast.

  8. Greg Kagan Says:

    The rest of the time, of course, those flitting shadows and tiny voices were pure imagination finding patterns in the chaos, that steroidal cerebrum of yours doing what it does best. It’s the ceaseless chatter of innumerable, parallel sub-processors poring over input, looking for the elusive pattern that will dowse water, kill the bear, or catch the conscience of the king. The world’s most compact computer, made entirely of meat and designed with unshakable faith that the world will function today more or less as it did yesterday.
    It’s an endless search for the slap on the forehead and the realization that “I’ve seen this before; I know how this works.” Chart enough stocks and the pattern will emerge, or so hopes the modern alchemist. View enough game tapes and the plays will become apparent. You may not recognize the body language, but it’s fuel enough for hunch and intuition. Watch the eyes to find the lies.
    And above all, practice, practice, practice: looks like, sounds like, smells like, reminds me of. “Doesn’t she look a little like that girl on the news? The one from The Cities who disappeared from that motel room…well, maybe not, but a little bit, don’t you think? And doesn’t that cloud look like a duck?”
    It doesn’t, of course, but isn’t Mother Nature the cautious one! “Better safe than sorry, dearie,” she says, having endowed us with her own parental paranoia. Not an unwise decision, that! Better to flee a thousand imagined tigers than be taken unawares by one real one.
    And where’s the harm in daydreaming over the shapes of clouds. One man’s paralyzing superstition is another’s reasonable care. Knock wood to ward off evil. Wear your lucky socks. Don’t step on the cracks. Never throw your hat on a bed. Toss a pinch of salt. Invoke the name of God. Don’t eat fertilized lettuce. Eat only fertilized eggs. Look both ways before crossing.
    Why not live by the laws of magic? Physics only applies in the laboratory anyway, and then only for those who believe. And, some day, the rapture will carry away all believers, leaving behind a world of atheists, pagans and physicists.
    The pigeon turns in a circle before pecking the light and—behold—food appears. What do we learn from this? Turn…peck…food…turn…peck…food. Could it be that turn + peck = food? Why, so it does!
    “Why,” wonders the shaman, “such a glorious harvest? Wasn’t it just last spring that young Quetzal fell down the well? What would be the harm if we throw a child down the well next spring just to be safe? And if that doesn’t work, we’ll try two. Can’t hurt! Might help.”

  9. Gwiss Says:

    This is bogus! I don’t see faces
    every where I look! Michael
    Shermer evidently
    is mis- O O taken!
    What proof
    does – c – he have
    to l l make claims
    like ————– this?

    ( Do note: this is a joke.)

  10. Chris Morris Says:

    Andrew Kitt’s identification [2] of the ability to recognise patterns as a [or the? ] definition of intelligence confirms and structures my own unarticulated ideas. Arising from this, I have problems with the patternicity of the cause-effect sequence – which philosoper David Hume showed cannot be proven to exist. The universal human experience of and reliance on causality seems to me to make a nonsense of Hume’s philosophy, which in turn seems to make a fool of me since Hume is held in such high esteem. Can somebody unravel this knot for me ?

  11. Neal Cormier Says:

    The problem I have with this is not factual-based per se, it is the way in which the data is being looked at in regards to this concept: ‘patternicity.’

    It seems that the Andrew Kitt comment here, #2, is reflective of what I can’t quite put my finger on, but seems a rationalization of a sort, maybe under the category of the fact that looking to disprove something -akin to skepticism–is just as much a rationalization as looking to prove something–akin to determinism. One must have a cognitive check and balances of both to be more rational.

    –“Eyesight (or any other sense) is also “find[ing] meaningful patterns in meaningless noise.” Your eyes don’t actually “see” an apple on a table; your brain constructs “apple” from billions of nerve impulses relaying cellular interpretations of light.”–

    This is possibly even a tautology of a sort. There’s a reverse contradiction in the very premise of looking at it this way. What is “seeing” itself, if not the impulses of nerves relaying cellular data? What else could “seeing” possibly be, or ever have been?

    Since the definition of seeing IS the relaying of cellular data itself from eye to the brain, to begin with, this makes Kitt’s statement literally into: ‘One does not “see”an apple, he merely sees an apple. Or ‘you cannot “see” a car, you can only view with your eyes that it has a car fuselage, windows, doors, with four wheels and runs up to 140km an hour.’

    Existence is a precondition of the senses, not the other way around. Its proof is a self-evidency. One of the very few.

    The reason I bring this up is not arbitrary, it seems similar to the reasoning Dr. Shermer uses in this essay, in that the ‘weird’ things he describes as being weird i.e. 9-11 conspiracy, are not linked with a how here.

    That is, how do abstract concepts like political events compare epistemologically to the detection of whether concrete, visible phenomena of jungle predators are there or not? Going from the immediate senses to abstracts is quite a leap, and it could only compare analogously, at best, rather than completely on par, which is totally assumed here.

    The similarity between Andrew, many others, and Shermer seems to be a ‘determinism of skepticism’ common to many ‘skeptics’ today.

    I have heard a common retort to this: “But, abstracts are far more complex than concretes to begin with, so wouldn’t it be harder, not easier to make images out of clouds?”–This comeback is a throwaway, abstracts are not necessarily more complex, they are of a different cognitive nature entirely.

  12. Lenny Says:

    I love the term, Shermer! hope you can come back to UAB and enjoy more drinks at the five-points grill! (none of that oatmeal ale, though..)

    Lenny B,
    Watched you debate Doug Gavin

  13. Infinite Monkey Says:

    I disagree with Mr. Cormier’s argument of abstract/concreate. Its only relent if you can actually see the predator in full view. If its in the bushes, then you’re taking a pattern, green on black (in this scenerio, you may have a black panther after you), and putting a form around it and filling in the pieces. So, recognize the pattern as a panther, assess the possible danger, and perform the nessecary defensive actions to protect yourself-grab a spear or run. Until that panther jumps out and tries to attack you, its still abstract, you don’t know for certain.

    Now, applying this same concept to the perceived patterns of conspiracy theories, you recognize the pattern, access the danger, and perform the nessecary defensive actions to protect yourself-expose the conspiracy or avoid locations of political/economic importance.

  14. Greg Kagan Says:

    On further examination, I wonder whether patternicity as defined (The tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise) even exists as a meaningful entity.

    One finds a pattern based on a combination of external stimuli and stored templates. Whether the stimuli are actual components of what one perceives them to be or simply “meaningless noise” is rarely knowable at the point at which the perception occurs. This is exactly as nature “intended” since an individual inclined to wait for certainty would quickly fall prey to any even moderately camouflaged predator.

    Perhaps patternicity would be better defined as “the tendency to find patterns in stimuli before it can be reliably determined whether they are in fact meaningful signal or meaningless noise.

    Finding error in pattern recognition depends on how one measures. For example, when you walk down the street, see someone and think “That’s my brother; wait a minute, no it isn’t” is this an example of error or accurate perception? Depends on where in the process you take the measurement. Of course, the perception itself depends on the the viewer’s expectations. Hunters expect to see deer, so they see them in what turns out to be cows, dogs, or fellow hunters. Most of the time, they wait long enough to correct the misperception before they shoot, but those episodes don’t make the news.

    Similarly, intelligence officers expect to find conspiracies and so they do. In many cases, these turn out, upon further examination to be false (ideally before ideologues use them as excuses to take the nation to war). On the other hand, conspiracy theorists, make many of the same kind of judgements. They may in fact be right, but whether they are or aren’t, they tend to stick obessively to their judgements, though part of the reason may be that they don’t have access to the data that might allow them to invalidate their initial judgements.

    But back, for the moment to the question of “meaningless noise.” Let’s take two pieces of toast, one with a randomly formed pattern that a viewer perceives as Elvis. Now take an identical piece of toast with an identical pattern, this one formed by a carefully designed stencil. Same pattern, same perception. Would you call one a pattern found in “meaningless noise” and the other an accurate perception of a pattern that looks like Elvis? My point exactly!

  15. Digital Patternicity « Unstructured Data Blog Says:

    […] – is the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise.  When I read this article on Pattnernicity I immediately related it to the challenges we face with information […]

  16. How to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise, Patternicity and Digital Patternicity « Message Compass blog Says:

    […] Source Patternicity: Noun. The tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise […]

  17. Joe G Says:

    So when people see a “pattern” of fossils we can chalk that up to paternicity.

    When people see a “pattern of universal common descent we can also chalk that up to patternicity.

    Now if someone sees a pattern and comes to a design inference all that has to be done is demonstrate that nature, operating freely can account for it.

  18. Elsa Says:

    Hello Michael, I heard you speak in Montreal a couple of days ago – on patternciity, and on the good ancient reasons for our predilection for patterncity. Fabulous concept.

    Patternicity among those into pseudo-science. Just today I listened to a hugely popular speaker – Lisa Nichols. Her story: she was selected to be in the movie, The Secret, though she knew nothing about it or the (supposed) law of attraction, and has come to be one of the star speakers in it. This means (according to her), that if she can do it, everyone can, because the odds were more stacked against her than just about anyone else.

    I see a pattern here – and not the pattern she sees. I see someone discounting the lack of success of all those who knew way more than her.

    I also see a massive lack of logic in her “reasoning.” I suppose patternicity goes with jumping to erroneous conclusions.

    Anyway, patternicity – it is a term I plan to start using in my site –, which is about (among other things) good thinking and the massive current barriers to good thinking.

  19. allencomeau Says:

    let’s say these patterns exist and are discernable and provable, but not understood or maybe even given religious or non religious or even astrological misinterpeted. it’s a good skill to have and it would seem to me that anyone doing research and assumes these patterns/likeness are vauge(i guess that means could be any f ing thing?)should do some kind of a study, lets see this vauge stuff? canadian/american idol for patternicity,check out what vauge is not. facesinaloud, this is a phenomonom like the animated images in 911 building collapse(respect) smokestacks,ice,clouds,beach rocks, pareidolia, i don’t think so.patternicity is a good start, at least it gives me somewhere to start with your education on this matter, although that is the thing with pareidolia? right, i may be deluding myself?? that’s a hard one.

  20. allencomeau Says:

    i forgot to mention, absolutely nothing for sale.

  21. What's in the name Says:

    If Mr. Shermer was Darwin he would have said the evolution pattern as meaningless. When do you draw the line whether the pattern is meaningless or non meaningful??

    Aaah!!! we have another Religonist!!!!!!

  22. allencomeau Says:

    a pattern can be one penny in reality and if you can anticipate the next penny you have not created a pattern you have only recognized it was there all along. patterns can be anything at all and nothing at all. but we have to find meaning ouselves. that’s my two cents worth.
    allen comeau (curse you jude law)

  23. allencomeau Says:

    oh yeah, Dr, Shermer is the man

  24. Joseph Says:

    Patternicity is a 100 fold on Magic Mushrooms, fractals and carvings….mostly always bushes, leaves and tribe like images.

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