The Psychological Reason You See Patterns Where There Are None

Why our leftover cave-age brains struggle in this modern era.

Photo by Tachina Lee on Unsplash

Humans are funny. We’re funny because even though we consider ourselves to be logical, rational beings, we have enormous blind spots when it comes to our own intuition. We are inherently ordered, organized creatures. When we see an unstructured mess, we instinctively look to find patterns and order, and then we believe they’re undeniably true.

Take this example: I don’t understand the Instagram algorithm one bit. Some pictures I post do really well and are “picked up” by the algorithm for further distribution to Instagram users, while others, very similar ones, get passed over completely.

I can never predict which will succeed. Things I would anticipate to matter — photo quality, caption humor, theme — don’t seem to make any difference. Sure, there are some trends, but enough outliers occur that I can’t guarantee a post will do well or not. I drove myself mad, trying to determine what factors would predict success, and how I could ensure future success.

No obvious factors seemed to matter. No matter the type, color theme, caption length, hashtags used, I could not predict an outcome.

I did notice a trend happening with completely external factors, though. On days when my hair was especially bad, greasy, flat, or uncooperative, the Instagram posts did better.

I’m not joking. I even made a chart to track it.

But I’m a sane, rational person with a background in scientific research. I know there’s no logical way that my bad hair days could actually influence Instagram’s algorithm. Obviously, that was ridiculous.

Nevertheless, I did briefly consider and entertain the idea. I vaguely considered the notion that when I had bad hair, the universe made it up to me by giving me good Instagram reach. I never came to anyone with my theory because it’s patently wrong. But deep in my mind, I felt I’d cracked the code.


Humans are hardwired to look for patterns.

Back in the cave ages, information was gold. It was critical to survival. One false move, one wrong judgment, and your life could be over.

One thing that made humans succeed was our ability to extrapolate. What that means is that we’re exceptionally good at spotting trends. We could learn, quickly, from seemingly unrelated events until they became inextricably linked in our minds.

Consider this example: you’re hanging out by the local watering hole when a bird stops whistling. This could be for any number of reasons: it just flew away, it started to eat, its throat got tired.

But this has happened before. And last time, the reason was —

You start sprinting as fast as you can, away from the water, until you reach shelter in a nearby copse of trees.

Sure enough, there next to the watering hole is a hungry-looking predator. You’ve just escaped with your life.

Here, jumping to conclusions was critical. From knowing the right food to eat to avoiding predators, to making friends with the right people, spotting trends and extrapolating to future events was a life-saving skill. It could make or break your chances for life.

If you think about it, developing this ability makes sense. Imagine you were wrong, and there was no predator. You sprinting away has cost you a bit of energy and time.

However, what if you ignored that trend but you were wrong about that? You’d stay put, conserving your energy but potentially losing your life.

“Humans have a tendency to see patterns everywhere…we tend to be uneasy with chaos and chance.” Thomas Gilovich, professor of Psychology at the University of Cornell

Nowadays, of course, we aren’t typically at risk of being eaten by something with sharper teeth than us — but the instinct remains.

The influx of information makes us look for patterns everywhere.

In this era, information is everywhere, instantly accessible. Some of it is wrong, some of it is right. What’s more, our ability to access information has superseded our ability to understand that. We can consume levels of data and information that would have been inconceivable to us even twenty years ago, but we still haven’t developed the corresponding ability to process all that intel. That doesn’t stop us from trying, though.

What does that mean?

It means that things happen and we don’t know why. Instead of accepting that we can’t understand things and that we’re doomed to mild confusion, we look for patterns instead.

This has driven some of the most remarkable innovations in history. Louis Pasteur, upon noticing that milkmaids weren’t as susceptible to smallpox, extrapolated the reason (they had contact with cowpox, which protected them from smallpox), even though there was no obvious connection.

But it’s also driven some of the biggest delusions.

Humans are so good at recognizing patterns that if we think two variables are connected, we start seeing a trend even if there isn’t one. We will actually retrocatively see proof and evidence where there is none, our brains frantically reworking our memories until we can’t deny our new discovery.

This can bring on things like conspiracy theories. We look at the world and we panic at the chaos, the disorder. We hate it, fear it, can’t understand it.

Rather than thinking that people genuinely don’t have a clue what’s going on and there’s no plan, people turn to the idea that someone at the top is nefariously controlling it. We see signs, evidence, “proof,” that there’s something else going on, and we latch onto it for comfort.

Look at Flat Earthers — in the face of overwhelming evidence of a round earth, they turn to fringe theories and false science to explain that which they can’t understand. Once they’ve adopted their new truth, they refuse to release it, convinced they’ve found their answer and unwilling to go back into the darkness of ignorance.

Humans are weird. Our brains have all these leftover relics from our earlier eras and we can’t let go. We interpret the modern world with our monkey brains as best we’re able, sometimes with outstanding results, sometimes with less insightful responses.

The charming thing about humans is that we never relax. We’re never content in our own ignorance — we must continue to seek out knowledge and data until we’re convinced we’ve found the cause. Sometimes, this gives us an insight we’d never imagined. Sometimes, it opens us up to being manipulated, leading us down a dark path of denial, falsehoods, and lies.

Either way, it never fails to amaze me how our brains are tremendous data crunching machines that look for order and patterns in a meaningless mess of matter. We are determined to believe that things happen for a reason — we just need to figure out what.

Written by

MSc by Research. Psychology nerd. She/her.

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