Thursday, 11 August 2011

Randomness & Psyche

This article describes how, in our search for order and purpose in life, people sometimes assign meaning to events that are objectively random and devoid of meaning. Consider these two images — one dot pattern is random, the other isn't:
Sample A
Sample B

One of the two images above shows a random pattern of dots, the other has been manipulated to resemble a random pattern but isn't really random. Which image is random?

In perception studies, most people choose Sample A because Sample B shows tight clusters of dots that don't really seem random. But it turns out that Sample A has been artificially arranged to avoid normal clustering, and Sample B shows a truly random ordering of dots.

The meaning of this experiment is that, when people see tight clusters of dots (or of events), they conclude it isn't a chance grouping but has special significance. But in reality and in nature, events often cluster purely by chance.

The following sections show examples where, for psychological reasons, people assign meaning to meaningless groupings, significance to insignificant coincidences, even invest in outright frauds based on mistaken perceptions of reality.

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