Michael Shermer - The Patterns Behind Self-Deception

If you have a small child, ask him what he sees in the picture to the side if he looks closely enough. Your apprehension to do this betrays what a pervert you are, but your innocent child will see something radically different... and put you to shame :)

It should come as no surprise to you that part of the reason we see what we see has to do with the fact that we are pattern-seeking organisms. In his second absolutely fascinating TEDTalk presentation (watch the first one about 'why people believe weird things'), Michael Shermer analyzes two specific types of pattern recognition problems the human mind is likely to commit: Type I (false positives) and Type II (false negatives).

Although one may find superstition incredibly infuriating, we must understand that its prevalence is at least partly explained by the fact that, in purely evolutionary terms, the tendency to find patterns, even when there aren't any, would have benefited our ancestors' chances for survival (although it would have also helped them develop all sorts of looney beliefs). The key, of course, is to find that delicate balance between radical skepticism vs radical gullibility: you don't want to be too close-minded to new valuable ideas, but you also don't want to be so open-minded that your brain falls out...

Understanding the difference between these two types of pattern-recognition mistakes, Shermer provides a simple conceptual framework to understand why so many people believe in so many weird things. As if all the scientific explanations weren't awesome enough, the presentation ends with a hilarious little experiment totally worth being shared in the Philosophy Monkey blog :)



If I were a psychology researcher looking for funding, I would totally contact Candid Camera to invest in my research :)

For more on the ways the mind can assign agency and intentionality to inanimate events, or look for meaningful patterns in meaningless noise, check out the God helmet on the documentary God on the Brain, Richard Dawkins on The Purpose of Purpose, or Andy Thomson on Why We Believe in Gods.
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