Illusory Pattern Perception

I recently came across this study from the October 3rd issue of the journal Science. It’s about how decreased control over life circumstances increases “Illusory Pattern Perception,” which is the tendency to see connections or meaningful relationships among random data where no such connections exist–basically, it’s apophenia caused by decreased control.

The “decreased control” part of this equation is what interests me most. Interesting types of apophenia (e.g., pareidolia) are well-established psychological phenomena, but I thought they were simply part of humanity’s evolutionary pattern-seeking penchant. This study seems to indicate that the less control you have over your life (or the more insecure your environment is), the more likely you will be to seek control by inventing patterns to organize your life experiences (e.g., stepping over cracks on the sidewalk).

Illusory Pattern Perception can give you the sensation that you’re doing something to improve your predicament when you would otherwise feel helpless. For example, you might happen to hit all green lights on the way to work when you’re wearing a certain blue shirt. If you also happen to be wearing the blue shirt the next time you miss the red lights, you might recognize the pattern and start wearing the shirt more regularly to promote fast travels. (In case it isn’t obvious, this kind of thing happens all the time in the world of sports.) Once the superstition is formed, every coincidence will play into the existing confirmation bias–and you’re hooked.

What this study shows is that these superstitions develop more easily and readily in environments where people lead less predictable lives with less daily security. Perhaps this is a contributing factor to the higher levels of superstition and religion in areas with lower standards of living? I also found it interesting that when the students who participated in the study were trained to think in self-affirming ways and actively do things to improve their condition, the instances of Illusory Pattern Perception decreased markedly and they stopped seeing patterns that did not exist (e.g., stock patterns or images in television static).

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2 Responses to Illusory Pattern Perception

  1. mikhailovich says:


    Thanks for your comment.

    The colored shirt analogy might have been too superficial to be helpful; I was searching for an example of popular superstition that would be too obviously untrue for anyone to take seriously, therefore illustrating the point without someone thinking, “Wait–the light really DOES turn green for me when I wear my blue shirt!”

    Also, it isn’t my idea or inference that people who lead less predictable lives will latch on to a higher percentage of random connections that aren’t there; that was the primary finding of this study: people with decreased life control experience higher instances of Illusory Pattern Perception. The results interest me, but I wasn’t trying to make an assertion like that without support.

  2. BigFrank says:

    Interesting stuff here, Mikhailovitch.
    The human mind is a complicated system – it is always looking for patterns, but it is also quite sensitive to patterns that aren’t patterns and thus don’t work. Very soon after wearing the blue shirt, the wearer finds it doesn’t make the lights green, and so the theory is abandoned. True some people hold on to patterns which aren’t there but that’s pathological and not general. So I’m more optimistic about the capacity of human beings to do good science every day -continually testing stuff that comes at them and trashing falsehoods and recognizing, and building on consistencies when they are really there. I don’t think people need to be trained to do this. It is part of the complex mental capacities we all have. Surely this must be part of humanism. Otherwise you’re saying that you and other trained people can do it but us Joes can’t. Also I don’t think the capacity to believe garbage is in any way better exhibited by people who “have a lower standard of living”. As reasonable as your general line of argument is, it tends to under-estimate human beings.

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