Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Illusory Pattern Recognition, a.k.a. the Virgin Mary in a Piece of Toast

I just read about a study that explored the idea that when people feel powerless, they tend to latch on to a superstitious, fatalistic worldview.

Feelings of control are essential for our well-being -- we think clearer and make better decisions when we feel we are in control. Lacking control is highly aversive, so we instinctively seek out patterns to regain control -- even if those patterns are illusory.

Anthropologically, one can certainly look around and interpret a lot of marginalized beliefs through this lens if one is so inclined, be it AIDS as a CIA plot or Obama as a Manchurian Candidate. It seems we are storytelling creatures, and we'll just make up a story if we have to to satisfy that pattern-finding urge.

In the workplace, one can see this effect when it comes to the rumors of what "Management" has in store for "the rest of us." This is why transparency and accountability is so important -- to prevent learned helplessness.

For an antidote, here's an interview in the NYT with Mark Pincus, founder and chief executive of Zynga:

One thing I did at my second company was to put white sticky sheets on the wall, and I put everyone’s name on one of the sheets, and I said, “By the end of the week, everybody needs to write what you’re C.E.O. of, and it needs to be something really meaningful.” And that way, everyone knows who’s C.E.O. of what and they know whom to ask instead of me. And it was really effective. People liked it. And there was nowhere to hide.


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This is a fantastic presentation which captures what technology is all about. Thanks you for sharing and may you have many thought provoking conversations!

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biltron said...

I have shared that study with a few people myself. People who talk about "they" and "them".... putting stuff in our water, food. Of course, sometimes conspiracies are real as well. It also reminded me about how Roky Erickson would listen to the noise mixed with AM radio signals randomly received by his tube amps, as he sat in his mothers trailer in rural Texas, suffering the effects of organic brain damage caused by recreational drug use. I wonder what patterns he was recognizing there.