Saturday, January 9, 2010

Patternicity and Agenticity

Last night, my significant other and I were watching the movie "The Golden Compass" while eating some Chinese take-out. As you know, Chinese restaurants typically include so-called fortune cookies with the orders, and this was no exception. I usually read them, laugh, and eat the cookies without much further thought. Last night was different. Just as my significant other was biting into her fortune cookie and reading the little piece of paper, a male character in the movie tells a girl who has just been spying on him to basically shut up and go hide in the closet. Well there was not ONE piece of paper inside the cookie, there were TWO. And guess what they said? : "An angry man opens his mouth and shuts up his eyes".

Needless to say, we were a little weirded out.

1. In our experience, there is never more than a single piece of paper inside a fortune cookie. This time there were two.
2. Both pieces of paper said the same thing.
3. The pieces of paper and the man in the movie were both talking about shutting up and observing.
4. The pieces of paper were read AT THE SAME TIME as the actor spoke the line in the movie.
5. THAT SAME MORNING, I came across a few Scientific American articles by Michael Shermer about "Patternicity", "Agenticity" and "Conspiracy Theories" after they were mentioned on the radio in a commentary.

It is human nature to observe patterns and connect the dots. But this is WEIRD.

According to Shermer, patternicity is the tendency to find meaningful patterns in random noise. For example, a long, thin shape in the grass could be a branch. Or it could be a snake. As part of our defense and survival mechanisms, we tend to recognize certain patterns easily. We can recognize the shape and color of berries, the faces of our children and friends, the shape of a fertile mate, the outline of a lurking predator, etc. The drawback of that is that we often come up with false positives. Biologically, it is better to run from an imagined snake than to step onto a real one. In our modern world, this tendency leads people look at the Universe and see all sorts of patterns that appear too perfect to be natural and automatically assume that there must be an intelligent creator.

Agenticity refers to the ability to be aware of desires and intentions in ourselves and others, but this also gives us the tendency to assign intent to random events or things. Random, unrelated events are linked together to form conspiracy theories or divine intervention. Children look at the clouds and assume they "want to hide the sun". People look at thunder and lightning and see the anger of the gods.

So this is very interesting. Being aware that seeing patterns in random events is a mental illusion, I can dismiss the fortune cookie incident as baloney, and rest easy.

"the problem with government conspiracies is that bureaucrats are incompetent and people can’t keep their mouths shut. " -G. Gordon Liddy