As the topic has come up frequently in The Illuminatus! Trilogy (which I am reading right now), I thought I’d post a good quote I read recently about the human tendency to find patterns where none exist.
The only problem is I can’t find the quote. I don’t remember the exact phrasing, I don’t remember for certain who said it — I think it was either Neil Gaiman or Warren Ellis, but it could have been one of them quoting someone else — and I can’t even nail down enough words to get a decent search going.
Anyway, it finished up with something like “If you believe there is a vast alien conspiracy to take over the world through teddy bears, you’ll start seeing evidence of it.”
In my efforts to find the quote, though, I came across some interesting information. It turns out I’ve been misusing the word all along. I generally use it as a synonym for coincidence, or possibly to mean interesting coincidence. But synchronicity actually refers to a theory by Carl Jung that such coincidences actually have meaningful connections.
People do have a tendency to perceive order in chaos. It’s what makes us see horses in clouds, or people in mountainsides, or faces on Mars. It’s why faces on cartoon cars make more sense than faces on walls, and it’s almost certainly a factor in the popularity of numerology. I found the technical terms for this. Apophenia, or Type I error refers to seeing connections where there are none. Pareidolia refers to seeing something vague, but perceiving it as if it were something clear. I also found a very nice collection of pareidolic illusions [link gone].
Today I read a whole sequence in Illuminatus where one character is describing the significance of the numbers 2, 3, 5, 8, 17, 23 and 40. And of course you can relate numbers to each other in all kinds of ways, given the number of mathematical operations available. It’s finding meaning in those connections that strays into apophenia. There was an email floating around two years ago about the number of elevens you could find in the 9/11 attacks. Snopes did a good job of dismantling this example by picking another number to look for, and quoted an excellent parody.
So if you convince yourself that the number 235 has some sort of significance, you’ll be looking for it. And you won’t pay as much attention to all the other numbers that pop up, but every time you see 235, it’ll register. When a movie starts at 2:35, when someone has an apartment number 235, you’ll notice it, and the fact that you do start seeing it will confirm in your mind that it’s significant.
Combine confirmation bias with apophenia and pareidolia, and you know what? You will start seeing things that fit in with whatever the theory is. Maybe it’ll be as harmless as an opinion of BMW drivers and turn signals. Maybe you’ll start seeing Elvis. Or maybe you will see evidence of the interplanetary teddy bear conspiracy!