Pragma Synesi – interesting bits

Compendium of interesting bits I come across, with an occasional IMHO

Why People Believe Invisible Agents Control the World

Humans have a tendency to see patterns in everything, even when there is none (“patternicity”);  there is also the tendency to assume there is an agent causing actions (“agenticity”), explained in the article below.  I am thinking that the “agenticity” could be an extension of our “patternicity” — since we see the pattern of  cause-effect so often, when we do not see the cause, we make it up (the invisible agents).  What do you think?

From Scientific American Magazine –  May 19, 2009

Why People Believe Invisible Agents Control the World

A Skeptic’s take on souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens and other invisible powers that be

By Michael Shermer

Souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, government conspirators, and all manner of invisible agents with power and intention are believed to haunt our world and control our lives. Why?

The answer has two parts, starting with the concept of “patternicity,” which I defined in my December 2008 column as the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. Consider the face on Mars, the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich, satanic messages in rock music. Of course, some patterns are real. Finding predictive patterns
in changing weather, fruiting trees, migrating prey animals and hungry predators was central to the survival of Paleolithic hominids.

The problem is that we did not evolve a baloney-detection device in our brains to discriminate between true and false patterns. So we make two types of errors: a type I error, or false positive, is believing a pattern is real when it is not; a type II error, or false negative, is not believing a pattern is real when it is. If you believe that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is just the wind (a type I error), you are more likely to survive than if you believe that the rustle in the grass is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator (a type II error). Because the cost of making a type I error is less than the cost of making a type II error and because there is no time for careful deliberation between patternicities in the split-second world of predator-prey interactions, natural selection would have favored those animals most likely to assume that all patterns are real.

But we do something other animals do not do. As large-brained hominids with a developed cortex and a theory of mind—the capacity to be aware of such mental states as desires and intentions in both ourselves and others—we infer agency behind the patterns we observe in a practice I call “agent­icity”: the tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents. We believe that these intentional agents control the world, sometimes invisibly from the top down (as opposed to bottom-up causal randomness). Together patternicity and agent­icity form the cognitive basis of shamanism, paganism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, and all modes of Old and New Age spiritualisms.

Agenticity carries us far beyond the spirit world. The Intelligent Designer is said to be an invisible agent who created life from the top down. Aliens are often portrayed as powerful beings coming down from on high to warn us of our impending self-destruction. Conspiracy theories predictably include hidden agents at work behind the scenes, puppet masters pulling political and economic strings as we dance to the tune of the Bilderbergers, the Roth­schilds, the Rockefellers or the Illuminati. Even the belief that government can impose top-down measures to rescue the economy is a form of agenticity, with President Barack Obama being touted as “the one” with almost messianic powers who will save us.

There is now substantial evidence from cognitive neuroscience that humans readily find patterns and impart agency to them, well documented in the new book SuperSense (HarperOne, 2009) by University of Bristol psychologist Bruce Hood. Examples: children believe that the sun can think and follows them around; because of such beliefs, they often add smiley faces on sketched suns. Adults typically refuse to wear a mass murderer’s sweater, believing that “evil” is a supernatural force that imparts its negative agency to the wearer (and, alternatively, that donning Mr. Rogers’s cardigan will make you a better person). A third of transplant patients believe that the donor’s personality is transplanted with the organ. Genital-shaped foods (bananas, oysters) are often believed to enhance sexual potency. Subjects watching geometric shapes with eye spots interacting on a computer screen conclude that they represent agents with moral intentions.

“Many highly educated and intelligent individuals experience a powerful sense that there are patterns, forces, energies and entities operating in the world,” Hood explains. “More important, such experiences are not substantiated by a body of reliable evidence, which is why they are supernatural and unscientific. The inclination or sense that they may be real is our supersense.”

We are natural-born supernaturalists.

Note: This article was originally published with the title, “Agenticity”.

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Scientific American Magazine –  November 25, 2008

Patternicity: Finding Meaningful Patterns in Meaningless Noise

Why the brain believes something is real when it is not

By Michael Shermer

Why do people see faces in nature, interpret window stains as human figures, hear voices in random sounds generated by electronic devices or find conspiracies in the daily news? A proximate cause is the priming effect, in which our brain and senses are prepared to interpret stimuli according to an expected model. UFOlogists see a face on Mars. Religionists see the Virgin Mary on the side of a building. Paranormalists hear dead people speaking to them through a radio receiver. Conspiracy theorists think 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration. Is there a deeper ultimate cause for why people believe such weird things? There is. I call it “patternicity,” or the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise.

Traditionally, scientists have treated patternicity as an error in cognition. A type I error, or a false positive, is believing something is real when it is not (finding a nonexistent pattern). A type II error, or a false negative, is not believing something is real when it is (not recognizing a real pattern—call it “apat­ternicity”). In my 2000 book How We Believe (Times Books), I argue that our brains are belief engines: evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature. Sometimes A really is connected to B; sometimes it is not. When it is, we have learned something valuable about the environment from which we can make predictions that aid in survival and reproduction. We are the ancestors of those most successful at finding patterns. This process is called association learning, and it is fundamental to all animal behavior, from the humble worm C. elegans to H. sapiens.

Unfortunately, we did not evolve a Baloney Detection Network in the brain to distinguish between true and false patterns. We have no error-detection governor to modulate the pattern-recognition engine. (Thus the need for science with its self-correcting mechanisms of replication and peer review.) But such erroneous cognition is not likely to remove us from the gene pool and would therefore not have been selected against by evolution.

In a September paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, “The Evolution of Superstitious and Superstition-like Behaviour,” Harvard University biologist Kevin R. Foster and University of Helsinki biologist Hanna Kokko test my theory through evolutionary modeling and demonstrate that whenever the cost of believing a false pattern is real is less than the cost of not believing a real pattern, natural selection will favor patternicity. They begin with the formula pb > c, where a belief may be held when the cost (c) of doing so is less than the probability (p) of the benefit (b). For example, believing that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is only the wind does not cost much, but believing that a dangerous predator is the wind may cost an animal its life.

The problem is that we are very poor at estimating such probabilities, so the cost of believing that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is just the wind is relatively low compared with the opposite. Thus, there would have been a beneficial selection for believing that most patterns are real.

Through a series of complex formulas that include additional stimuli (wind in the trees) and prior events (past experience with predators and wind), the authors conclude that “the inability of individuals—human or otherwise—to assign causal probabilities to all sets of events that occur around them will often force them to lump causal associations with non-causal ones. From here, the evolutionary rationale for superstition is clear: natural selection will favour strategies that make many incorrect causal associations in order to establish those that are essential for survival and reproduction.”

In support of a genetic selection model, Foster and Kokko note that “predators only avoid nonpoisonous snakes that mimic a poisonous species in areas where the poisonous species is common” and that even such simple organisms as “Escherichia coli cells will swim towards physiologically inert methylated aspartate presumably owing to an adaptation to favour true aspartate.”

Such patternicities, then, mean that people believe weird things because of our evolved need to believe nonweird things.

Note: This article was originally published with the title, “Patternicity”.

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May 23, 2009 - Posted by | behaviour, creationism, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, religion | , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. […] Michael Shermer’s article I already learned that people see patterns even when there is none. The article below points out […]

    Pingback by Why we think rituals can influence results « Pragma Synesi – interesting bits | September 15, 2011 | Reply


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