Michael Shermer talks patternicity and agenticity

June 14, 2009 | By | 9 Replies More

In the June 2009 edition of Scientific American, well-known skeptic Michael Shermer discusses human tendencies to find things and agency where they don’t actually exist:

Patternicity [is] the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. Consider the face on Mars, the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich, satanic messages in rock music. Of course, some patterns are real. Finding predictive patterns in changing weather, fruiting trees, migrating prey animals and hungry predators was central to the survival of Paleolithic hominids.

Thomas Gilovich conducted a now classic study regarding our tendencies toward patternicity.  The subject was the “hot hand” that many people assume that basketball players get.   You know . . . give him the ball.   He’s got the hot hand going . . .

But we are also a bit too good at inferring agency:

We infer agency behind the patterns we observe in a practice I call “agent­icity”: the tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents. We believe that these intentional agents control the world, sometimes invisibly from the top down (as opposed to bottom-up causal randomness). Together patternicity and agent­icity form the cognitive basis of shamanism, paganism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, and all modes of Old and New Age spiritualisms.  Agenticity carries us far beyond the spirit world. The Intelligent Designer is said to be an invisible agent who created life from the top down.

Why do we claim to see things that don’t exist? Shermer concludes that we are “natural born supernaturalists.”


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Category: Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science, scientific method

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (9)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    Agenticity has at least one reasonable evolutionary explanation. Imagine you are a prehistoric human sleeping somewhere in the African wilderness. Amid the darkness of night you hear a twig snap. Your neighbor ignores the sound and continues sleeping, but you suspect that the noise was caused by an unseen agent — for example, a hungry leopard — and so you reach for your spear to protect yourself. The result: your neighbor is more likely than you to become cat food. Thus, evolution favors humans, like you, who can imagine unseen agents. Indeed, not only would evolution favor nervous, superstitious humans, but ones who are *fearful*, perhaps even terrified, of unseen agents. Now, toss in some frightening nightmares about meteorological (i.e., agricultural) calamities, or dead enemies coming back to kill you, or perhaps a deranged neighbor who rants about seeing invisible evildoers, and you have the ingredients for a religion.

  2. Danny says:

    I knew it! Since belief in supernatural is all just wish-fulfillment and a hard-wired psychological phenomenon, then why be so hard on those poor theists?

    One may say, being theist isn't so bad as long as they keep it to themselves and don't meddle in politics and public policy. But the theist's desire to over exert their brand of truth is also evolutionarily hard-wired.

    But then, one may say the skeptics desire combat the evils and irrationality of theism is also evolutionarily hard-wired.

    Even my thoughts about this post and what I'm writing is just the natural byproduct of the electronic blips in my brain which are completely uncontrolled by me, since there is no scientific evidence for volition.

    I'm a hard naturalist/antisupernaturalist and I say we all leave each other alone (which of course, I'm saying because it's hard-wired that I do so). How is anyone to win over anyone by reason when we are naturally and evolutionarily predisposed to our own beliefs?

    Observable Nature is supreme, who can resist her will?

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Michael Shermer at Scientific American: "I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe but because I want to know. I believe that the truth is out there. But how can we tell the difference between what we would like to be true and what is actually true? The answer is science."


  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Why do people believe so readily in conspiracy theories? Because we crave Agency. According a recent Salon.com article by Thomas Rogers, believing in agency helps us to dispel the fear of our powerlessness in the face of the vast unknown. He goes further to suggest that the same instinct drives believe in conspiracy theories and gods.

    What makes us susceptible to conspiracy theories? We want to believe theories that contradict the idea that young, iconic people died senselessly. If a story takes away the accidental from their death, it gives them agency. After the JFK assassination, it was unbearable to many people that they could live in a country where a lone gunman could kill a president. In those circumstances, it’s not surprising that an overarching conspiracy theory emerges. It suggests that somebody is in control, rather than that we’re at the mercy of our neighbors and to some extent of ourselves (as was the case with Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana). It’s the urge to make sense of a particularly traumatic moment.

    In some ways, it's not that different from the impulse to believe in God. It is deep down a leap of faith, but it doesn't present itself as a leap of faith.


  5. Erich Vieth says:

    "Pareidolia is when random images or sounds are perceived as significant. Seeing clouds in the shapes of dinosaurs, Jesus on a hot pocket, or hearing messages when a record is played backward are common examples of pareidolia."


  6. While it’s easy to dismiss something you don’t understand, the other side of the coin is worth exploring.

    So many people have “coincidences” in their lives, that to dismiss the phenomenon is rather like deciding that God doesn’t exist because you can’t see “It.” We can’t see radio waves either, or atoms, or molecules so as we know in quantum physics, one atom will mimic the other no matter how far the distance.

    There IS an electrical field around every person..when I walk around the block at night…the street lights go on and off, when I pass. When I pass near to my AM radio…static comes and goes. RIGHT? Simple.

    Now, if I were a conspiracy nut, I’d say that the government has put radon in my milk, instead of saying…it’s just a fact. I’m electric!

    Can a human effect things with his own mind? There was a Harvard Study in 1979 that showed if you put an old man back into his teenage years…make him live with the records..sights, and sounds,etc… his whole body will regain youth. Muscles, thinking ability,etc, hearing, vision, even faces looked younger…so your mind can effect your body, according to Deepak Chopra, MD.

    Also—-none of us really knows about Dark matter, only that many are saying it’s probably more important than all the rest in the universe. Maybe there is something in that dark matter that gives us coincidences…we know SO very little. The butterfly effect is also another theory that is worth throwing in.

    As for conspiracy theories, I think that to always believe what your government tells you is somewhat…naive.

    WAS JFK killed by one man? When you have vast trillions in dollars, and powerful men struggling for those seats of power, you’d be naive to think that conspiracies DON’T exist. Out of all the books I’ve read on the matter, it seems LBJ had the most to win from that. HOW he managed the whole thing is still being debated. “Beware the vast military complex” said Dwight.

    It’s why men spend half their fortunes to get into a seat that pays only a small amount of money to them. After they leave, they triple their incomes.

    This subject is fascinating! You have such a great mind Erich!

    You might be right about genetics…I blame my own Independent opinions on my ancestors, who were cranky old guys. (Adams) BUT…environment also plays a big part. I was raised in the swamps of Florida.

    I’m a swamp rat with an attitude! LOL!

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