I had the good fortune recently to spend a few days up north, far from the bright lights of the big city. At night the stars lit up the sky, and as I stepped outside my eyes quickly gravitated to familiar patterns like the Big Dipper and Orion’s Belt.
As I found myself trying to recall the ancient stories behind these groupings of stars, I was struck by how we naturally seek out and see patterns. We intuitively concoct stories to explain the “patterns” we see—even when the connections are random and spurious. This observation has important implications for the research and insights industry, both for how we interpret research results and how we ask questions.
Our brains work from sparse data and fill in the blanks, making connections that may or may not actually be there. This practice is hardwired into our body and brain and is responsible for our very existence. We do this pattern-seeking instantaneously and without conscious thought.
Make connections or die
In his book, The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer explains why we are wired to make connections that may or may not be there: “Imagine you are a hominid walking along the savanna of an African valley three million years ago. You hear a rustle in the grass. Is it just the wind or is it a dangerous predator? Your answer could mean life or death.”
If we fail to make the connection to a potential predator, we become the beast’s dinner and are naturally selected out of the gene pool. But if we make a connection and it just turns out to be the wind, no problem—just a quick rush of adrenalin and we hurry on our way, only more alert. What is important, however, is that we quickly made a linkage.
True pattern recognition can save our life, but overly active pattern finding tends to have little impact. Thus, our ability to make quick associations survived the process of natural selection.
That’s why, Shermer writes, “Our brains are belief engines: evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see…” “We are,” he continues, “the descendants of those who were most successful at finding patterns. This process is called association learning and is fundamental to all animal behavior, from C. elegans to H. sapiens. I call this process patternicity, or the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise.”
The brain makes snap, illusory connections
We are oblivious to how we make quick connections from sparse information, because it is hardwired into our perception of the world. Eye physiology tells us we can only see what is right in front of us, and only see one color at a time. The rest is a colorless blur. But that’s not how we perceive the world we live in.
We also have a literal blind spot where our retina is. But we don’t notice it , because our brain fills in the blind spot based on detail from the surrounding area. What we think we are seeing is not literally what we are seeing. Our mind makes up for the sparse data by filling in the blanks with memories and assumptions.
Nick Chater, in his excellent book The Mind is Flat, writes, “our beliefs about what we see, whether we are looking at text, objects, faces or colors, are systematically misleading: we see far, far less than we think we do. Indeed, we see the world one snippet at a time; and we can tie snippets together, just as we can link together successive sentences in a story. So the ‘inner world’ of your current sensory experience is also, it turns out, entirely fake.” This fakeness, he suggests, extends to how we think and reason.
Most of our choices are unconscious
Years of studies in behavioral economics and psychology have demonstrated that most of the decisions we make are emotional and non-conscious. They are decisions made by what Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman calls System 1 thinking—fast, intuitive and emotional. Yet when we are asked to explain our decisions, we immediately and effortlessly conjure up an answer—even though the decisions were not conscious ones. We search through our store of socially acceptable explanations to concoct an answer that will satisfy the questioner, and we’re not even aware of it.
“The parallel with perception is striking:” Chater writes, “…we glimpse the external world through an astonishingly narrow window, and…the illusion of sensory richness is sustained by our ability to conjure up an answer, almost instantly, to almost any question that occurs to us. Now we should suspect that the apparent richness of our inner world has the same origin: as we ask questions of ourselves, answers naturally and fluently appear. Our beliefs, desires, hopes and fears do not wait pre-formed in a vast mental ante-chamber, until they are ushered one by one into the bright light of verbal expression. The left-brain interpreter constructs our thoughts and feelings at the very moment that we think and feel them.”
Bad connections and not noticing
Our ability to effortlessly (and incorrectly) explain our beliefs is wonderfully illustrated by a classic study by psychologists Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson. They set up in a department store and invited consumers to tell them which of four pairs of pantyhose they preferred and why. People picked their favorites and explained why they liked the color or texture or whatever it was they said drove their preference. The only thing was, the stockings were identical. There were no differences. There was no rationale for picking one over the other. Yet people were happy to articulate a rationale.
These findings on how quick we are to unknowingly give illusory reasons have been elaborated on in a series of elegant experiments by Swedish psychologists Petter Johansson, Lars Hall and others at the Choice Blindness Lab at Sweden’s Lund University. In one study, they showed people two pictures of people’s faces and asked them to choose which of the two they found more attractive. The interviewer then, by sleight of hand, handed respondents the picture of the person they had picked as being less attractive and asked them why they had chosen this person as being more attractive.
This has important implications for the kinds of questions we ask people, and provides further information to support our position on survey design: The Question You Should Never Ask: Why?
But our ability to easily and erroneously make connections that don’t exist has implications for more than just what questions we ask. It also has profound implications for how we derive insights from the research we do.
Seeing spurious connections in data
Our tendency to seek and find patterns in random (and sparse) information is why we see faces in clouds and the Virgin Mary on toast. iPhone sales are almost perfectly correlated (.999) with the number of people who died from falling down the stairs, over the same time period, in the U.S. and U.K.
Now, if your mind went to people falling down the stairs because they were focused on their iPhone instead of perambulating, then you just experienced this desire to find linkages even when they don’t exist.
iPhone sales are also almost equally perfectly correlated with the consumption of American cheese; U.S. spending on science, space and technology; and attendance at Disney World’s Animal Kingdom, according to data you can analyze at the entertaining website Spurious Correlations. And while those examples are obviously ridiculous, the same thing can happen in any analysis, especially if we focus our attention on tests of statistical significance.
We must be on guard and conscious how our pattern-making brains complicate both survey design and our analysis. We need to be acutely conscious that we are hardwired, as both respondents and analysts, to make connections and see patterns where there are none.
On a related exciting note, I’m working on a follow-up to The Insights Revolution: Questioning Everything. The new book revolves around learnings from other professionals who also develop insights. The book will include interviews with detectives, spies, doctors, prosecutors, archeologists, and historians about how they develop and communicate their insights.
Want to be the first to get a copy? Sign up and we will email more details when the book is out in early 2020.