Recognizing patterns is a way of ordering, or seeing order in, the world. Spotting patterns can be a way of perceiving meaning, although we must remain aware that where there is a pattern there is not always meaning. Maintaining a rational open-minded stance or avoiding the satisfying jump to conclusions can be surprisingly hard to do. Humans have evolved to notice patterns and ascribe, if not meaning, then at least significance, to them. English philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon said that humanity has a proclivity to “suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world than it finds.”

Dryburgh Coat of Arms on Tartan

The tartan is a pattern without meaning (other than denoting clan) while the patterns on the coat of arms are heraldic and loaded with meaning. (Photo: dryburgh.us)

The Jungian idea of synchronicity, so popular these days, arises from the notion that coincidence (a small, localized pattern) may contain some kind of message or reflect an underlying meaningful substrate in the world. The religious may see coincidences as signs from God, and looking out for them becomes a way of gaining welcome and reassuring divine guidance. The superstitious see coincidence as the workings of fate. They too believe they see useful clues, signs, and omens. Good things may be had and bad things avoided by paying attention. Patterns, once noticed, are hard to ignore. They tug at our minds. Financial theorist William J. Bernstein updates Bacon when he says, “Man is little more than a pattern-seeking primate, with an unerring ability to see connections and suspect conspiracies where none exist.”

Larger patterns or patterns of longer duration are even more convincing than small ones. How could so much fit together if there is no meaning behind or within it? When we think like this, we are in danger of seeing patterns as a substitute for conceptualizations, or believing that they are the same thing. The orderly nature of the pattern makes us, as Bernstein suggests, go too far in making unwarranted assumptions.

Patterns are not conceptualizations; they are the perceived order from which we build conceptualizations. The simplest way to see this is to consider how different individuals may conceptualize the same pattern in completely different ways – each constructing their concepts according to their own particular set of emotionally important ideas or way of seeing the world. Take gasoline prices, for instance. They are often the same no matter which station you visit. There is a pattern. For some, this is the result of market forces, honest competition driving down the price to the lowest possible point. For others, such uniformity is indisputable proof of dishonest collusion and widespread price fixing.

We humans go beyond looking for patterns in the world around us. We perceive patterns in ourselves. We develop “habits.” We notice our “routines.” We feel as if we are stuck in a rut. Some people sound like “broken records” (or they did when we had such things!). Patterns often irritate us making us feel the need to eliminate or change them. We not only want to perceive patterns; we want to manipulate them, create them, and if we like them, inhabit them.

Consider this quote from SF writer Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, Fifty Degrees Below: “Frank speculated that many life stories consisted precisely of a search for reiterated pattern, for habits. Thus one’s set of habits was somehow unsatisfactory, and you needed to change them, and were thereby thrown into a plot, which was the hunt for new habits, or even, but exceptionally, the story of the giving up of such a hunt in favour of sticking with what you have, or remaining chaotically in the existential moment …”

Sound familiar?

9 thoughts on “Humans Are Pattern Seeking Primates Hunting for Habits

  1. I have recently taken it upon myself to find out about “the law of attraction”, “Abraham” as (unbelievably) translated through Esther Hicks, etc. and your observations in this article sound familiar… almost exactly, but possibly worse? I am concerned about the possible implications of people believing this without question. It ‘seems’ to be offering the reward of getting anything you want on Earth, but there is no accountability because it is your fault if your thoughts aren’t good enough… and disease, accidents, are caused by vibrations from your negative thoughts… It’s all more complicated than that of course. It is apparently science, but similar to Karma.

    So, despite my explaining a strange idea badly, what are your thoughts? Are we all connected by energy waves to a universe that wants to deliver everything we want or deserve, if we focus our attention in the right way? These idea’s have been around for a long time (especially as some people seem to see it as akin to Buddhism) but they seem to have become a ‘commercial’ product in a recession where people are looking for answers, perhaps an easy fix for life’s difficulties, and an illusion of control over their environment etc.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Emma. What you are describing and enquiring about are some aspects of New Age religion, a loose collection of ancient beliefs brought back to popularity by our current taste for the irrational and propped up by a misinterpretation of some scientific principles (e.g. the uncertainty principle). New Age beliefs are irrational and have no genuine basis in science.

    I personally do not believe the “power of positive thinking” can bring you anything other than a more optimistic view of life. (Which may be well worth having!) Nor do I believe the universe is waiting to make our every wish come true if we could just master the “law of attraction.” Such beliefs are non-scientific and irrational. They are also very alluring. Evolution has “programmed” us to prefer large gains that can be had for little effort. It is what makes many of us easy targets for those smooth-talking investment swindlers.

    From my perspective, the Abraham “entities” are either a deliberate fraud or an unwholesome delusion. However, some people get a kick out of believing such guff. How serious they are in their belief varies, but it often goes no farther than having a bit of fun. When I was young, I used to enjoy the Ouija board. It fascinated me, the way someone would take over and start shoving the planchette around, yet no one would ever admit to doing it. Belief at this level is harmless.

    Our thoughts are for working out ideas in our heads. If implemented, those ideas (given enough time) may have a huge impact on the world, but thoughts do not have immense power to affect the world around us directly. Humans do not possess supernatural abilities. Naturally, that does not stop some people from wanting to believe otherwise.

    In the post, I am exploring the way the human mind tries to find patterns in the world around us. As with so many human attributes, this too is the result of evolution. We cannot stop our brains from doing it. I also explore the difference between a pattern and the conclusions we draw after detecting it. Humans tend to read too much into the patterns we think we have detected and each of us has our own way of going about this. At this level, we can try to be more rational and consciously reject jumping to conclusions. How successful we are does vary.

    In the end, all beliefs must face the acid test of reality. It is hard to believe something when the evidence against it grows significant. The more bizarre the belief, the sooner, and the harder, it runs into that contradictory evidence. Human nature makes us want results. How long does it take a deluded believer to realize the universe is not giving them everything they want?

  3. Well in my world it wouldn’t take very long at all! I can see why it’s so appealing… but I find that reality is a far better world to live in. I agree with all of your comments, especially the Abraham delusion, though I feel that it is more likely to be fraud having seen some video footage of how good she is at manipulating words. Some people are entrenched in this belief, and feel they are truly enlightened… they have ‘expert’ knowledge, and there is a sense that they feel sorry for our ignorance.

    One described herself as a ‘recovering convincer’.

    It’s strange. I am an Artist and I read your blog for “The intrinsic rewards of mental activity” as you posted today (as well as for the invaluable way the things you write kind of make sense out of what I do!). My world is painting, thinking and feeling (not necessarily in that order) and as such I experience it as an extremely positive creative environment… that is my equilibrium. I live in reality, but it is so rich for me at times that I think it would be great if more people could embrace it instead of these types of delusions, or escapisms. It’s not easy, there are no quick fixes, no comforting supernatural beliefs, but the truth, the reality, seems so much more rewarding.

    Life is tough, it takes hard work sometimes to see the positives… and to be honest things like this do make me feel sad, like watching a talented musician drink his life away because he’s too scared to look in the mirror. Is positivity based on an illusion/delusion really any better than taking drugs or alcohol to make you feel better?

  4. We have to factor in psychology when talking about beliefs. True believers with little in the way of genuine accomplishments hope to enhance their self-image and impress other people with their occult knowledge. Convincing others of the value or truth of this knowledge gives a nice boost to the believers’ egos. Since they have no other way of getting a vanity boost, believers become quite devoted to their particular belief set. The more unusual are the beliefs, the more special and unique they feel themselves to be.

    Your experience as an artist is typical of what the creativity researchers have found. Art enriches a person’s life in a way that few other things can. Not everyone possesses artistic talents or a strong intellectual bent, but there is a wealth of opportunity to find something worthwhile to do. Regrettably, many people just look for something easy. As psychotherapist Alfred Adler has said, “When the individual does not find a proper concrete goal of superiority, an inferiority complex results. The inferiority complex leads to a desire for escape and this desire for escape is expressed in a superiority complex, which is nothing more than a goal on the useless and vain side of life offering the satisfaction of false success.”

    I agree that reality is far more gratifying, but if a person has decided on the shallow side of life, they may be a good deal less satisfied without realizing why. As you say, it takes courage to know and understand yourself. Being constantly “positive” is a way of dulling or evading the pain. In my experience, the light does seep in eventually – and then there is hell to pay.

  5. U can sometimes change the formula and use the power of thought tho varies with participants. Like the coach of a sports team , u can inject positive thinking into a group and if they all believe ur correct ur vision will become truth.

  6. Dear Thomas,
    I have been exploring the idea of humans as pattern-seeking animals. It is quite certain whether patterns exist in nature or not; humans look for patterns for sure. Those might be “false positive” or “false negative” as discussed by Michael Shermer. I agree that pattern-seeking is a fruit of evolution but as my exploration deepens, I have this feeling that to some extent pattern-seeking is in human nature, thus I wanted to ask you for your opinion: “pattern-seeking being rather in human nature”. Thank you for the article, it was quite helpful.

  7. Sonam, I think it is important to distinguish between mere pattern-seeking and the deeper search for significance and meaning. The world (indeed, the entire cosmos) is filled with patterns, and humans have, as you noted, evolved to recognize and exploit these patterns in ways that wonderfully enhance our ability to survive.

    Yet there is something in human nature that wants more than just the satisfaction of spotting a pattern, even if doing so will help us put supper on the table. We crave what is best described as a spiritual aspect to our lives and to the world in which we live those lives. We dimly sense things in ourselves that we cannot put into words: vague hunches or feelings or even the promptings of a divine being. The workings of the unconscious mind can haunt us if we lack self-awareness. Failure to understand our own inner reality prompts us to “see” (project) meaning in the world that is actually of our own making. We take the patterns that we find and use them as “proof” of this, that, or the other personal belief.

    Remember that a belief is a pattern of thought that we have made for ourselves or borrowed from others because we see some value or truth in it. Many of our beliefs are acquired when we are children when we simply “swallow them whole” as the saying goes.

    A good example of this search for meaning is the “argument from design” now being used to prove the existence of God. This line of thought says: surely something as complex and well-integrated as the world or cosmos must have been designed by someone or something.

    This brings us the crux of your question: is this complex pattern of human behaviour innate or is it the result of evolution? The ability to recognize and make use of patterns has most assuredly evolved. The human mind is indisputably a product of that evolution. Yet the mind seems to have—well—a mind of its own! The search for meaning is of doubtful value in terms of getting enough to eat, having clothes to wear, and keeping a roof over your head. Since it seems not to enhance survival directly, a debate now rages as to whether such behaviour is the result of evolution. (See The God Gene by Dean Hamer.)

    Some claim the search for meaning yields a social benefit that enhances a society’s broader ability to prosper. Others declare that there are psychological benefits that improve the functioning of the individual. If either of these positions is valid, then evolution can be said to play a role. A third camp says there is something more to this aspect of the human experience and we should be open to the idea that we may be much greater than we know.

    Personally, as I suggested above, I think that the human mind’s lamentable lack of full consciousness accounts for much of the confusion here. I am firmly on the evolution side. Consequently, I place enormous importance on knowing who you truly are (as opposed to your false persona) and what you genuinely believe (as opposed to what you pay lip service to). Vague intimations of “something more” are, in my experience, always the result of stirrings in the unconscious mind.

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