Humans are funny. We are inherently ordered, organized creatures. When we see an unstructured mess, we instinctively look to find patterns and order.
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 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. Why?
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 judgement, and your life could be over.
One thing that made humans succeed was our ability to extrapolate.
What that means is that we could spot 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 by 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.
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. That’s important when making decisions and judgments and acquiring knowledge; 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.
And 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.
What does that mean?
It means that things happen and we don’t know why. Instead of accepting that we can’t understand things, 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.
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.
Humans are weird. Our brains have all these leftover relics from our earlier eras and we can’t let go. We interpret the world as best we’re able, sometimes with outstanding results, sometimes with less insightful responses. I am in love with reading about and learning all the ways our brains work, and applying it to my own life.
I’ve learned that Instagram and bad hair are not connected. Maybe my next trend recognition will be a little more accurate!