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Take a good look at the clouds below. Can you see a face in the clouds?

The wonders of nature...

Okay, that one’s probably cheating. But anyone who’s ever seen pictures in clouds or a campfire’s flickering tongues of flame, or thought they heard their child’s voice in the noise of a running dishwasher,  will find this article interesting. It’s about “patternicity” – or the human tendency to find patterns in noise, even if the pattern is imaginary.

The article notes that humans have two linked psychological features – a very strong tendency to find patterns all around us, and a very poor ability to estimate probabilities involved in discerning false patterns from true ones. The authors suggest this is because the evolutionary cost of believing in many false patterns was much lower than missing the few true ones. The article’s example involves an individual believing every rustle of the wind in the bushes is a hungry predator – if incorrect, the cost is minimal. But if it -is- a predator and the individual assumes it is only the wind, the cost is very high. The latter case may be very rare, but it only takes once for the predator to enjoy a nice lunch. Given the human lack of good probability-estimation, it’s just safer to always assume that rustling is something dangerous.

So, by this argument, we accept lots of false patterns because in the long run, it’s the most beneficial to survival of possible high-cost risks. What do you think, readers? What are some modern situations to which you can see this applying?