Human beings are basically a collection of tubes with a large, mushy computer attached to the top. We have developed extremely complex methods of finding stuff to put in one end of the tube and let out the other. We’ve also developed extremely complex methods of passing on our genes to the next generation. The process of becoming H. sapiens has left us with a lot of vestiges of that process, from our propensity toward late-life joint pain to the way we process information. That information processing is fraught with what we call cognitive biases.
The evolutionary process brought with it a collection of cognitive biases that we’re only beginning to catalog and understand. It’s no wonder that we do silly things when we interact with each other, given the fact that we largely don’t understand what’s going on in the squishy mess at the top of our spine. For instance, were you aware that we are hard-wired to recognize patterns, even where no patterns exist? We find faces in shadows, familiar shapes in clouds, monsters in dark woods. It’s called apophenia, and it makes sense if you’re a shrew-like mammal foraging for seeds. They tend to live longer when they err on the side of caution when they see something that may be a predator. Assume it is a predator, get to live even if it isn’t. Gamble that it’s not, maybe become lunch.
Our Cognitive Biases: Apophenia
There is a list of named biases that we all live on a daily basis. Most of us remain blissfully unaware that they exist. In order to become a more well-rounded male, it’s vital to at least be aware of them. This article and the ones that follow will attempt to serve in enlightening you to the reality that is our amazing, convoluted, and often illogical brains. For the purposes of this segment, we’ll stick to apophenia and the things it does to our ability to reason. Apophenia makes modern life harder for H. sapiens than it needs to be. First is the entire concept of gambling.
The Gambler’s Fallacy
The gambler’s fallacy also known as the ‘fallacy of the maturity of chances,’ is a belief that we can predict outcomes of scenarios involving pure chance. If you witness a coin toss that comes up heads repeatedly, with each successive toss you will believe that the likelihood of a tails toss is greater. You would be wrong. Each toss of the coin has exactly a 50/50 chance of coming up either heads or tails. Twenty-seven heads in a row will never change the initial odds. Dice don’t get ‘hot,’ a deck of cards isn’t ‘due’ to give you a high ten card, and the reason that horse is a long-shot is that it’s unlikely to win. That will not stop some people from believing that they understand numbers better than they do.
Pareidolia: That’s not really a face
Pareidolia is another piece of the cognitive bias puzzle. It lets us see patterns that are simply not there. The face on Mars, the clouds that look like Godzilla, the beat the washing machine makes when you’re washing shoes, are all examples of pareidolia. It can be a good thing to find a pattern in data, but when it goes unchecked it becomes a liability. That image of Jesus in the wood grain or the Virgin Mary in the toast isn’t a sign from God, it’s your brain making a fool of you. Extreme cases of unchecked pareidolia are called paranoid delusions. It’s good to know the difference between real patterns and fake ones, which leads to the next aspect of apophenia.
Looking for hidden meanings and overfitting are cognitive biases that overlap in this realm. Overfitting is making your model so broad that it counts meaningless events as meaningful. Women do this in relationships all the time. No, ladies, we’re not falling out of love with you because we left the mustard out. Searching for hidden meanings is how we got such pseudo-sciences as divination, dowsing, and dream interpretation. We’re hard-wired to find hidden meanings, though.
There’s so much of this to learn
There’s a hell of a lot more where this came from. I promise to cover more. In the meantime, ask questions or make comments (good or bad) below. Understanding these biases can sometimes help us avoid them. But as we’ll learn, other times we just have to be monkies with car keys.