Sunday, September 26, 2010

We Really Aren't Smart

We're human. As such, our brains tend to look for patterns in everything we see. That is, after all, how we survived back when ancient leopards were hunting ancient men. We had to be able to (ahem) spot a small pattern of spots in the wilderness surrounding us.

Now, though, we have so much information constantly raining down on us that we can't help but make patterns from things that really are unrelated. We don't like coincidence because it's just not quite as satisfying as a conspiracy.

Have you ever experienced the feeling that you're psychic? As in, you're thinking about somebody and at that very moment, they call your phone? Or you're talking about someone and they pop up out of nowhere - speak of the devil, right?

Well, the two events really had no causal relationship. How often have you been in a situation where you were thinking about somebody when somebody totally different called? You probably don't remember, because your brain simply doesn't take note of such a mundane event. You only remember the times when there is a connection to be made.

A lot of the patterns we see in the world only exist because we assign meaning to them. It's not always 11:11 or 12:34 when you look at the clock. You tend to forget the times that seem less interesting. These two times are simply more noticeable because of the way our number system works. The chances of you looking up at 12:33 or 11:12 are probably just about the same as the "make a wish" times.

David McRaney over at You Are Not Smart has an excellent post on the way we find patterns where there are none, a behavior known as the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. Go give it a read.

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