Bias, Blind Spots, and Patterns

jisept2008alligatorsnoutandeyes.jpgAlong similar lines of previous research reported here comes a report of this study at Ira Flatow’s Science Friday, via Overcoming Bias:

“In situations in which a person is not in control, they’re more likely to spot patterns where none exist, see illusions, and believe in conspiracy theories. In a series of experiments, researchers created situations in which people had less control over their situation, and then tested how likely the participants were to see imaginary images embedded in snowy pictures. The researchers also had participants write about either a situation in which they had control, or a situation in which they didn’t, and then presented stories involving strange coincidences. People who had written about a situation in which they were not in control were more likely to draw non-existent connections between the coincidences, the researchers found.”

As Robin concludes:

“This summary suggests out-of-control-feeling folks are biased to see more than there is, but perhaps in-control-feeling folks are biased to see less than there is.”

I tend to believe the former, because humans seem to me predisposed to make meaning, but the latter isn’t out of the question, i.e., maybe there is meaning in everything and I don’t see it. Or, maybe there are patterns I don’t see because I am biased to not see them. Are people who feel ‘out-of-control’ spotting “patterns where none exist” (as the summary states) or are they seeing patterns that  bias blinds others from seeing?

There’s a Charles Darwin quote that I like that seems related to this: “It is important to notice exceptions.” Exceptions are the non-patterns, which might in themselves make a pattern. Being on the lookout for exceptions in all things is one way we can try to overcome our own biases, our own predilection for seeing particular patterns and meanings. At the same time, looking for exceptions is a way of exerting control, another way of making meaning.

As usual, the comments from readers are worth reading.

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