The urge to believe

February 2, 2013 | By | Reply More

In this 2010 TED talk, Michael Shermer indicates that we have evolved to be pattern-seeking creatures because it is often more dangerous to suspend belief than to acknowledge that a pattern (e.g., a predator) exists. It’s a video full of good ideas.

What I found most interesting, though was Shermer’s discussion of an experiment run by Jennifer Witson of UT Austin. Using a patternless printout, she found that those who were more likely to find patterns were those who felt less certain and out of control. Great follow-up example at minute 7: Baseball players are more superstitious when batting (where the best only succeed 3 out of 10 times), whereas they are not superstitious when fielding (where they are 95% successful). At min 8, Shermer explained that those who believe in ESP tend to see more patterns that didn’t actually exist. What comes to mind is that conservatives tend to be more control oriented, and more likely to embrace and lunge at patterns that don’t actually exist.

At min 9: Drugs that reduce psychotic behavior (seeing patterns that don’t exist) leads to more euphoria and creativity.

Delightful illustration that we have hyped up face-recognition software (min 13).

A companion doctrine to patternicity is agenticity, recognizing agents who don’t actually exist. Sherman points out that agenticity explains many conspiracy theories (min 15).

Hilarious ending.

Shermer’s discussion continues at this recent post at Huffpo, which includes his “baloney detection kit.”

  • Does the source of a claim often make similar claims?
  • Have the claims been verified by another source?
  • Has anyone gone out of the way to disprove the claim, or has only confirmatory evidence been sought?
  • Has the claimant provided a different explanation for the observed phenomena, or is it strictly a process of denying the existing explanation?
  • Do the claimants’ personal beliefs and biases drive the conclusions, or vice versa?

Category: Psychology Cognition

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.

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