Our brains are built to think causally and look for patterns. We benefit when we can recognize that some foods make us feel sick, when certain types of clouds mean rain is on the way, or when our spouse gives us a certain look that means they are getting frustrated with something. Being able to identify patterns helps us survive and form better social groups, but it can also lead to problems. Sometimes we detect patterns and rules when there aren’t any, and we can adopt strange superstitions, traditions, or behaviors that don’t help us and might have a cost.
Daniel Kahneman demonstrates this in his book Thinking Fast and Slow by showing a series of letters and asking us to think about which series of letters would be more likely in a random draw situation. If we had a bag of letter tiles for each letter of the English alphabet, and we selected tiles at random, we wouldn’t expect to get a word we recognized. However, sometimes through random chance we do get a complete word. If you played thousands of Scrabble games, eventually you might draw 7 tiles that make a complete word on your first turn. The reality is that drawing the letters MGPOVIT is just as statistically likely as drawing the letters MORNING.
For our brains, however, seeing a full word feels less likely than a jumble of letters. As Kahneman explains, “We do not expect to see regularity produced by a random process, and when we detect what appears to be a rule, we quickly reject the idea that the process is truly random.”
We can go out of our way trying to prove that something is behaving according to rule when it is truly random. We can be sure that a pattern is taking place, even when there is no pattern occurring. This happens in basketball with the Hot Hand phenomenon and in science when researchers search for a significant finding that doesn’t really exist in the data from an experiment. Most of the time, this doesn’t cause a big problem for us. Its not really a big deal if you believe that you need to eat Pringles for your favorite sports team to win a playoff game. It only adds a small cost if you tackle some aspect of a house project in an inefficient way, because you are sure you have better luck when you do your long approach versus a more direct approach to handling the task.
However, once we start to see patterns that don’t exist in social life with other people, there can be serious consequences. The United States saw this with marijuana in the early days of marijuana prohibition as prejudice and racial fear overwhelmed the public through inaccurate stories of marijuana dangers. Ancient people who sacrificed humans to bring about rain were fooled by false pattern recognition. We see our brains looking for rules when we examine how every act of our president influences political polls for the upcoming election. Our powerful pattern and rule detecting brains can help us in a lot of ways, but they can also waste our time, make us look foolish, and have huge externalities for society.