Apophenia, Patternicity, Conditioned Seeing, And The Meaningless: The Science of Being Fooled

Rabbit or Duck IllusionI recently read a blog at Psychology Today titled 11-11-11, Apophenia, and the Meaning of Life(2011) by Dr. John W. Hoopes, a associate professor of the anthropology department at the University of Kansas; where he did a superb analysis on what is known as apophenia: a cognitive error in seeing meaningful patterns in what is really meaningless and random phenomenon. Simply put, the error of seeing something that is not really there(1).

Nevertheless, I thought it was really interesting only because it had been earlier written on by Michael Shermer who dedicated an article in the Scientific American titled Patternicity: Finding Meaningful Patterns in Meaningless Noise(2008) and even earlier by B.F. Skinner in his Science And Human Behavior(1953). Micheael Shermer coined the term patternicity to indicate the tendency of the individual to interpret/attribute meaningful patterns within the immediate environment around them(2). B.F. Skinner mentioned conditioned seeing which was the tendency to “see familiar objects more readily and easily than unfamiliar objects”(3). Skinner emphasizing of course our tendency to see discriminative stimuli; that is, seeing, more perceptibly, objects known/experienced in the past to the individual rather than unknown objects/objects that have not been experienced in the past–or an object that has not been experienced enough to leave a considerable impression in one’s awareness.

Dr. Hoopes writes in his blog that the tendency to recognize patterns in our environment was not a tendency exclusive to our species only. Pattern-recognition is also reserved for lower organisms and, even, artificial contraptions; such as the computers and other high-tech gadgets we own. Computers and other high-tech gadgets use this pattern recognition to predict future choices; such as when using a User ID in logging in a website or using a search engine and searching for whatever information you might look for(4). It uses a form of guessing based on your previous patterns and habits. Such a system of recognition attempts to predict future input in the case you need help remembering or it gives you suggestions based on past searches. This form of technology is programmed with this pattern-recognition because we realize that it is useful and helpful and, of course, convenient for us. But it is also useful for living organisms and beings in regards to their survival; pattern-recognition is important because it is used to recognize food, dangerous circumstances, predators, or other potential threats to our survival; if that movement that goes on in the bush happens to be the wind or a predator waiting for the right time to strike, we are not sure–even though such a distinction then would mean the difference of life or death! Regardless, we profit from making the right choice in the case that it is a predator. Such attributions, later on, are encouraged for beneficial use, even in the case we are wrong. There is just too much at stake. Hence, the probability of us using such pattern-recognition is strengthened, disregarding the ratio of times right to times wrong.

Furthermore, Hoopes offers a distinction that humans in particular have the tendency to interpret things in our environment wrongly; that is, we interpret initially meaningless phenomenon to meaningful phenomenon in our environment; when upon closer inspection, or in a different circumstance, we would render it meaningless. Michael Shermer explains that what he calls patternicity is reinforced through past successful associations of meaningful patterns in our environment when it was crucial for survival. He mentions the importance of pattern-recognition and how it is reinforced in his article;

“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“(5)

The succession of successful associations is, then, what strengthens the pattern-association experienced in the error of apophenia. Such a series of successful associations guarantees future use, and the prevalence will be dependent on how useful it has been in the past. Apophenia has no negative side-effects and thus we are not discouraged in anyway from a possible aversive response from our environment. Nevertheless, in this case, the identifiable problem, though not aversive in any sense, of apophenia comes with a characteristic hyper-association; when we are associating meaning too much. As a result of this association learning, we develop the tendency to see things that are not really there or read into phenomenon erroneously–or to use an idiom; reading something into something. For example, Shermer uses example individuals like ufologists who are more likely to see a face on mars, religionists who are more likely to see religious figures they revere or read about in their holy texts, or conspiracy theorists who are more likely to interpret catastrophes as conspiracies within the government but are nevertheless, more often than not, tricked by their own cognitive biases. And he said the reason for this is the priming effect; that we are prepared to interpret phenomena according to an expected model(6). We develop these models according to our biases, unfortunately. Which is why I think it has been said that no one person is non-biased  We are all biased to a degree, it is just a question of who is more biased. Regardless, here, it is suggested, that our interpretion and filtration devices, for our external environment, can cause us to not see things clearly as they really are in themselves because we have been primed by earlier experiences and what we have learned. Examples of priming coming into play would be interpreting the formation of a smiling face in the moon as a smiling face rather than a coincidental arrangement of figures on the moon because we have seen smiling faces in the past, hearing your son’s voice over the phone when in reality it is someone that sounds like your son because we are used to hearing our son’s voice over the phone, or when a narcissist thinks someone is waving at them when really they are waving at the person next to them because he/she is used to being waved at and assumes as such based on previous experiences. Favorable interpretations like this would be according to past experiences that have positively affirmed such biases. Thus creating an expected model in which we interpret phenomenon, and due to the priming effect( i.e. implicit memorization of an affect that a stimulus has on a later stimulus, or the association of one experience has on a future experience), more likely to interpret that phenomenon according to the said model.

B.F. Skinner provides a more interesting view with the view regarding pattern-recognition and perception errors. Conditioned seeing, as I mentioned it above, is merely a phenomenon that a stimulus that has more stronger of an influence on you the more you have seen it in the past. He says that you are more likely to see things which you have seen in the past or have been given verbal advice about. When the object in the environment is known to the individual it becomes a discriminative stimulus in the environment and thus is capable of drawing out your attention more strongly than an object you have had no previous, or very little, history of experience with.  Skinner goes furthermore and says:

“We generally see completed circles, squares, and other figures. An incomplete figure presented under ambiguous circumstances may invoke seeing a completed figure as a conditioned response. A ring with a small segment missing when very briefly exposed may be seen as a completed ring. Seeing a completed ring would presumably not be inevitable in an individual whose daily life was concerned with handling uncompleted rings”(7)

He touches on the idea of apophenia in that we see completed shapes more readily than incomplete shapes, and so are more likely to see completed shapes when we are actually looking at incomplete ones. In the case of the priming effect, the event occurs when a word is associated with the object–as in the case with the shapes; we often see that they are complete so we associate the word ‘complete’–along with its meaning–to the object, that is the shape in this case. Therefore, we are more likely to experience cognitive errors(apophenia) because of our pattern-recognizing habits and interpreting them by an expected model we prematurely hold.


1. Hoopes, W. J. (2011, November 11). 11-11-11, Apophenia, and the Meaning of Life. Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/reality-check/201111/11-11-11-apophenia-and-the-meaning-life

2. Shermer, M. (2008, November 25). Patternicity: Finding Meaningful Patterns in Meaningless Noise. Scientific American. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=patternicity-finding-meaningful-patterns

3. Skinner, F. B (1953). Science And Human Behavior. New York, NY: THE FREE PRESS. pg. 267

4. Hoopes

5. Shermer pg.1

6. Shermer pg. 1

7. Skinner pg. 267


8 responses to “Apophenia, Patternicity, Conditioned Seeing, And The Meaningless: The Science of Being Fooled

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  6. I read with great interest your post about apophenia and patternicity. This is the first I have heard about this. I was thinking it explains why I failed to notice a man had shot himself in the head. I thought he was sleeping. I am still not understanding why it was necessary to harass him into shooting himself besides hatred of the homeless on the part of law enforcement. I find it difficult, nay, impossible to have any compassion for blind hatred behind a badge, even if they have PTSD. So did the military veteran have PTSD they drove to suicide and now so do I. That hatred is contagious but I don’t hate homeless people, I hate cops. Nothing is going to convince me that anyone else is a “scumbag” who doesn’t deserve equal protection under the law except criminals wearing badges. I could not ever be so heartless as to turn away from any other human being in need with this one exception.

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