Humans are masters of pattern recognition and the trait has served us well over the eons, giving us a distinct competitive advantage in the battle for survival. Seeing a pattern turns you into a fortune teller, letting you predict what will happen next so that you no longer simply react to circumstances in the moment but can actually plan, setting yourself up for success before an event has occurred. But like all of our inbuilt mechanisms, the penchant for patterns has a dark side too. We often see them where none exist, mistaking correlation for causation, and make poor choices as a result.
I saw an example of pattern recognition gone awry in a documentary about two guys who had been convicted of murder. One was on death row and the other was serving a life sentence. The one serving a life sentence had started a written correspondence with a woman who began falling for him. She heard through her mother that he loved her and decided she needed to go to the prison where he was incarcerated to hear it for herself. After a conversation confirmed it, she was standing outside the prison gates when she saw a perfect rainbow connecting the prison yard to an area outside not far from where she was standing. When talking about it in the movie, she said something like “People don’t believe me, but I swear this rainbow was right there, connecting the two of us together.”
What she was concerned about was making the viewer believe the rainbow had actually existed. But she was worried about the wrong aspect of the problem. No one is discounting the fact that the rainbow was there; what is highly questionable is whether it had anything to do with her. She took the rainbow as a sign sent by God sanctioning the relationship and that was that. She saw causation where there was only correlation and made a life altering decision based on it.
We really can’t help ourselves from seeing and interpreting patterns in our environment all day every day, it’s how we’re built and the ability is essential for successfully navigating the world. But we can consciously interrupt the process to critically analyze our personal versions of reality, bringing the opinions of people we trust into the mix and asking ourselves how our secret desires sync up with the confirmation we have received from a supposed pattern.