The dangers of apophenia: not everything happens for a reason

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Humans love patterns. Sometimes that’s helpful, but other times… Not so much. Apophenia is the common tendency to detect patterns that do not exist. Also known as “patternicity”, apophenia occurs when we try to make predictions, or seek answers, based on unrelated events.

Apophenia can lead to poor decision-making. For instance, many people choose their lottery numbers based on the birthdates of family members. As the numbers are picked at random, however, this approach won’t increase their chance of winning. In rare cases, apophenia can even be an indicator for some mental conditions. Let’s have a look at how apophenia works, and how you can both detect and manage this phenomenon.

The science of apophenia

Apophenia is the propensity to mistakenly detect patterns or connections between unrelated events, objects, or occurrences. The term was first coined in 1958 by German psychiatrist Klaus Conrad during his study of schizophrenia. However, it is an effect of brain function that is not limited to those with a form of psychosis, and is now commonly recognised in health as well.

In schizophrenia, Conrad found that those who developed “apophany” started experiencing abnormal meanings in their daily life. For example, an individual might “see” various signs that they interpret as instructions meant only for them. They might be certain that an experience is proof that they are being watched, talked about, followed, or prepared for an event. In reality, these episodes are unconnected, have no pattern, and do not represent any form of sign or instruction. The delusions of schizophrenia can be all-consuming and sometimes terrifying.

In healthy individuals, apophenia may not lead to such alarming consequences, but can still have a significant impact on one’s decision-making processes. For example, if you may sail through three green traffic lights in a row and see this as evidence that you are on a lucky streak. Because of this perceived pattern, you might confidently place a substantial bet on a horse race or football match. Your perception of your likely luck might therefore lead you to make a more reckless financial decision than if you had not noticed an auspicious pattern.

This over-interpretation of patterns in healthy individuals could be an evolutionary survival instinct. Our ancestors may have benefitted from pattern interpretation as part of everyday life. For example, upon hearing a rustling in the trees behind them, they could either assume that the noise was due to the wind or a predator. Fleeing because they assumed there was a predator could save their life, and there would be no harm done if the assumption turned out to be wrong. Conversely, assuming the rustling was due to the wind could have put their life at risk. Believing a false positive over a false negative could, therefore, increase our chances of survival.

From fun imagery to financial risk

Mild apophenia is common and occurs in many domains such as finance, arts, and politics. Although it is not usually dangerous, apophenia can lead to risky behaviours or wrong beliefs about the meaning of a pattern. Here are some areas where you may encounter apophenia:

  • Visual illusions. Have you ever seen non-existent images in clouds, dirt, toast, or household objects? For example, you might see a phoenix in the clouds, a man in the moon, or a face in your sandwich. Pareidolia is a common form of apophenia that involves imagery. For some people, these images become signs of something significant, such as a message from a loved one or a sign of something yet to come. The artist Salvador Dali experimented with pareidolia to create paintings in which faces would be recognised, despite the painting breaking the mould of what a face truly looks like.
  • Financial decisions. In 2017, psychologists Zack W. Ellerby and Richard J. Tunney investigated how we make decisions. They reported that those who notice an illusory pattern may start to believe that the outcome of an event is not determined by chance, but instead by previous outcomes or choices. This can lead an individual to make a choice based on probability matching, rather than by selecting the choice with the highest probability of being successful. For instance, gamblers might start to believe that a win is coming because they see a pattern in lottery numbers, the roulette wheel or on the races. If they make two small wins in a row, this pattern may create the strong belief that they will certainly have a third win. This could lead one to place a large bet, which would be a risky financial decision based on a perceived pattern. The same can be true of trading decisions or business investments.
  • Political theories. By weaving together various signs or coincidences, an irrational set of beliefs can turn into a conspiracy theory. For example, at the height of the pandemic, some individuals believed that the government had an ulterior motive for locking down the population. Psychologists hypothesised that finding a pattern, and therefore a conspiracy theory, to explain the government’s policies was a coping mechanism for those who felt their power or safety was under threat. Believing a conspiracy theory, however, can lead people to shun scientific evidence and make poor choices.
  • Mental health. Occasionally, apophenia can be a precursor to delusional thoughts. Finding meaning in something random was described by researchers as an important factor in the formation of paranormal and delusional beliefs, and has been found to be implicated in vulnerability to schizophrenia.

The balance between embracing and managing apophenia

Dali showed that apophenia can be an exciting vehicle for discovering illusory patterns that could feed you creativity. However, it is important to embed strategies that will prevent you from making risky decisions or acting on erroneous beliefs because of apophenia.

To avoid the pitfalls of apophenia, you must first pay attention to any biased assumptions you make when faced with false patterns. For example, three green lights in a row will not have any connection to your chance of winning the lottery that weekend.

Secondly, work on accepting that not everything happens for a reason. Everyone has highs and lows in life, and there may not be any obvious cause for this. You are more likely to be successful in the long run by making rational decisions based on the available evidence, rather than making choices based upon perceived signs from the universe.

Finally, perform your own research. If you think a horse might win the grand national because you saw its name appear several times in unrelated situations, do some fact-finding before you place a bet. Compared to following so-called “signs” from the universe, your own research will give you a far more realistic idea of the risk ratios.

Apophenia can help you to think more creatively, but big decisions should be made only when the facts are clear. If several signs suggest that you should leave your job and start your own business, it can be very exciting. However, be critical of your thought processes, and give yourself time to assess the reality of the patterns you perceive. If, after doing plenty of market research, creating financial projections or even starting the side-business alongside your day job, you find that this new venture shows signs of being successful, then it might be time to embrace it.

Although apophenia may have an evolutionary basis, placing belief in a perceived pattern could lead you to make riskier decisions. To protect yourself from the drawbacks of apophenia, pay attention to biased thoughts, accept that not everything happens for a reason, and ensure you fully research your options before you commit to a decision.

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