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The Pattern Behind Self Deception

by Michael Shermer, Jun 15 2010

Last week I blogged about lying: “Everyone Lies: Why?”

Deception is one thing, self deception is quite another. This week has posted my new TED talk, delivered at the last TED conference, in which I present material from my forthcoming book on the neuroscience of belief, tentatively entitled The Believing Brain, a central theme of which is how we are so easily deceived and how we deceive ourselves. Here is a brief summary of the thesis of the talk, although because it is so visual I strongly recommend watching the TED video.

Souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, government conspiracists, 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 define as the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. 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). Since the cost of making a Type I error is less than the cost of making a Type II error, and since there’s no time for careful deliberation between patternicities in the split-second world 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 practice what I call agenticity: the tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents. That is, we often infuse the patterns we find with agency, and 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 Bildebergers, the Rothchilds, the Rockefellers or the Illuminati.

There is now substantial evidence from cognitive neuroscience that humans readily find patterns and impart agency to them, well documented in the University of Bristol psychologist Bruce Hood’s new book SuperSense (HarperOne, 2009). Examples: Children believe that the sun can think and follows them around and 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’ 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 eyespots interacting on a computer screen infer 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 importantly, 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.

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37 Responses to “The Pattern Behind Self Deception”

  1. Howard C. Shaw III says:

    This is reasonable and interesting stuff, no complaint with most of it. But you do make one statement that seems implausible to me: “But we do something other animals do not do.” Specifically, agenticity, but before I come to that, I just want to say I am suspicious anytime someone draws a line in the sand between people and other forms of life, because so many of those lines have been proven wrong in the past, from we are the only tool-users, to we are the only architects, to we are the only artists, to we are the only ones with language.

    I think this is probably only true in a moving target, god-of-the-gaps sort of way, where you keep moving the line to keep up with new discoveries, so I tend to discount such an idea as soon as I see it.

    It is because of this suspicion that I want to ask you, have you read of experiments or studies that specifically address the question of whether other animals impute agency to what they observe, and if so, could you provide references or links to such?


  2. Brian S says:

    With how self-evident this information is becoming in the scientific and academic community, it’s a shame that it’s so rejected or unrecognized in the world at large. Excellent summary!

    • oldebabe says:

      Good post. If only everyone could understand that we are the way we are, and why, and at least question whenever something seems fantastic or other-worldly.

  3. Very interesting talk (as usual). Any chance that you will make your slides available as a .pdf?

  4. Majority of One says:

    I would respond more but I’m not wearing my tinfoil hat and AT&T might be watching me. Just sayin…

  5. Chris Howard says:

    Are there any specific psychology courses that focus on belief formation, the kind Dr. Shermer is talking about in the video?

  6. scott says:

    Excellent talk. It’s great that TED provides a forum for speakers like Shermer.

  7. frank says:

    maybe a bit out of my depth here – but it struck me that the “rustling grass” example might be a self-serving analogy?

    to turn it around – what if, instead of a predator, it was ‘food’ or a “predatee” that rustled the grass? in that case selection would work in the opposite sense surely – because the hunter would be forever “chasing the wind” – wasting energy to no avail and dropping off the evolutionary mainline!

    just a thought


    • Another point of view says:

      Frank, I don’t believe you are wrong but only that reaction is not what is required, only becoming alert to a change in the environment so that the proper response can be made.

    • Max says:

      It still works. If food is scarce, missing your meal can be worse than wasting some energy.

  8. Serge Ledan says:

    Excellent, as usual, Mr. Schermer, but why can’t I kick the feeling this is all but naturally evident to a freethinker and a skeptic?

    • tmac57 says:

      The answer to a puzzle can also seem obvious once you know it, but not necessarily before hand.

  9. Marwan says:

    The link to the post about lying in the beginning is not working. It takes me to a login page.

  10. JGB says:

    What is up with using the terms “Type I error” and “Type II error”? They aren’t much shorter than “false positive” and “false negative” and are less clear – I have to keep reminding myself which is I and which is II. Thankfully they don’t have sub-types like supernovae do (e.g. Type Ia & Ib, etc.)

    There’s no reason to use them instead of the more descriptive “false positive” and “false negative” terms so they sometimes trigger my baloney detector … but maybe that’s just a Type I error – or is it a Type II error? I forget.

    • tmac57 says:

      It sounds more ‘sciencey’. F+ F- ;)

      • Max says:

        I’m used to Pd/Pfa for Probability of Detection / Probability of False Alarm. If the ratio is 1, the test is useless.

    • Xplodyncow says:

      I don’t think Shermer is using “Type I error” and “Type II error” to be pretentious or intentionally confusing — they are legitimate statistical terms.

      However, the legitimacy of statistics is an entirely different matter, since 42% of all statistics are made up.

  11. Gerard Lemay says:

    JGB’s comment regarding terminology is the most astute observation of them all, or maybe it’s just that I tend to be skeptical in any case…

  12. Xplodyncow says:

    Children believe that the sun can think and follows them around and they often add smiley faces on sketched suns.

    How do we know that children putting faces on sunshine means that they attribute agency to objects? (I did read SuperSense, but maybe I need to reread it.)

    I drew smiles on my suns when I was little — but that was because that’s what the other kids did and that’s how the sun was portrayed in cartoons, etc.

    • So did I! I don’t remember thinking the sun had any kind of personality as such. I put a smiley face on my drawings of the sun because that was one of the ways you drew the sun, and learning how to draw back then was about learning the rules.

      • two scoops says:

        Commercials for Raisin Bran had the smiling sun with its two scoops of Raisins. Every kid watching Saturday morning cartoons (before cable television) would have known that.

  13. Brian C. says:

    You’re only dealing with errors here. But not everyone is deceived. Some of us know all the truth, and therefore can never believe a deception. Being a skeptic makes you a Type I and Type II, depending on the events unfolding around you. I am neither. I know what is and what is not. I found your page only because my brother linked to it from Facebook. Otherwise, I would not have come here. Already know what some will say about my comment, but they are skeptics, like you.

    • two scoops says:

      A skeptic doesn’t have to be a cynic, and as you have just demonstrated, a cynic doesn’t have to consider himself a skeptic.

  14. caelidh says:

    I heard your talk on Ted and I found some of your comments to be flippant and patronizing.

    Skepticism is all find and good but I find that many “skeptics’ are merely close minded and self righteous.

    Your treatment of very serious issues such as 9/11 leaves much to be desired. There IS some very good evidence that debunks the “OFFICIAL” 9/11 story and yet anytime someone tries to have a discussion regarding it they are dismissed as a crackpot. To question and inquire SHOULD be a TRUE Skeptic’s priority not to flippantly insult people who are trying to find answers.

    Are there crackpots IN the “Truther” movement. Sure..

    I found your “cute” little video about tricking the girls into kissing monkeys to be irrelevant to your argument as well. However, it IS telling if you want to have a discussion about the issue of Propaganda and Disinformation techniques which could involve bait and switch tactics that you illustrate in that video!.

    I can’t always trust what I see with my own two eyes.. that is true. We SEE What we CHOOSE to see and what we are PRIMED to see. If there are agencies that are in fact trying to distract people from SEEING certain things they can prime them before or after an event happens. To draw their attention away from the stuff they don’t want you to see.

    To be a TRUE Skeptic… one MUST look at all the angles and information and question all.. even the OFFICIAL Story.

  15. Chris Kavanagh says:

    I agree with everything Shermer says and I think he is a good populariser but I can’t help thinking that there is nothing very new being said here.

    I mean do we really need another new term (agenticity) for an overactive attribution of agency? We already have ‘Hyper Active Agency Detection’ HAAD from Justin Barrett, which is widely used in the cognitive science literature and we also have the ‘supersense’ of Bruce Hood and lots of other terms like anthropomorphism, pareidolia and so on.

    Maybe it’s because of my studies but I’m finding the constant reinvention of terms to be a bit pointless and tiresome. Wouldn’t it be better if skeptics consistently applied the terminology of the fields they are drawing from rather than reinventing their own versions for every new book?

  16. wow Mike. That clip at the end was amusing, I am sure, to all you males. But substitute a guy for the deceived girl in the video——-now it is a guy being fooled into kissing the monkeys. not so funny NOW, is it?

  17. Beelzebud says:

    What I find amusing is cognitive dissonance.

    Like spending years writing about the Invisible Hand of the free market, and how the stock market would be better off being de-regulated, because business people only behave in a rational manner. All the while chastising others for “magical thinking”.

    Self deception is indeed a powerful thing. If only the author would look in a mirror every once in awhile.

  18. Chuck Powers says:

    Like say people who see a pattern of global warming caused by man in every weather event. In spite of the clear proof the data is manipulated for finacial gain by the scientists and politicians behind it certain people believe because they have an irrational fear there is an ominous patter rather than just random events or innocuous changing weather patterns. Good point. Thanks for the insight.

  19. Gene says:

    Scientists may find philosophy interesting. Much of what I just read and heard in this interesting presentation is obvious – and I have no equations available, nor any jargon to foster.

    Animals have survival skills. This is clear to anyone watching. Humans are not gifted in most physical attributes, not a good actor in a fight with a big cat or bear. Humans, however, survive because of communal skills and the ability to recall and assemble data. From infancy animals look and learn. Humans are especially good at this and great at assembling lessons and teaching them to their young in an abstract way. We have become what I can call “abstractors.”

    These abstractions are superb learning tools and permit us to leave the jungle. The more an abstraction works, the more we have faith in it. If one is bad, we get eaten.

    Our problem is we tend to “believe” abstractions (“science” being one of them). This would relate to the theme here. Our minds assemble, categorize and abstract. That is what we are. However, abstractions are not reality, if indeed anyone actually experiences that. We forget that and accept certain abstractions as “fact.” Others will call it a belief.

    In the end, history becomes nothing more than the “fight or flight” instinct raised by contrary abstractions.

    I enjoyed the chimp segment. I have seen “bums” select fine wines while yuppies pick the crap, which is also enlightening.

    In conclusion, I propose that those who fancy them “scientists” are creating an illusion for themselves. Science is a tool; theories are not facts. One isn’t a hammer, so how is one a scientist? Tools are survival mechanisms and will help, but they are not reality. To smugly distain all from a “scientific” position is arrogance and a dangerous delusion if unchecked. The NAZIs had great scientists.

    • Godwin says:

      You might have had a point, but the bells and whistles that began sounding for activating Godwin’s Law in your last sentence made me forget everything that came before it.

  20. Alex says:

    He’s got some interesting examples but I’m not sure why he threw intelligent design in there with aliens and 911 truthers. There are hundreds of working Ph.D. scientists who openly state that Darwin’s explanations can’t account for the complexity of life. Additionally, the majority scientists believe in God. In contrast, very few are genuine atheists. From the standpoint of evidence, he used some great concrete examples and studies and then hastily extrapolated that to basically all religious beliefs. I mean, my gosh, it’s called “faith” for a reason. We know it’s a belief. He seemed to have a fairly low, condescending regard for people in general.

    • reference needed says:

      Would you please provide a reference for the statement “the majority scientists believe in God”?

  21. Alex says:

    Also, intelligent designers are not seeing a pattern that Darwinists see. In other words, I’m not sure this is a type 1 error on their part. If they don’t see a pattern that is (presumably) real (e.g., that time and chance are sufficient explanation for the complexity of life) then I think it is a type two error. Also, I’m pretty sure that is what the scientific methods is supposed to be about, trying to disprove a hypothesis. Some people might be uncomfortable with the logical conclusion of throwing out Darwin, but that doesn’t make intelligent designers akin to people who see conspiracies.