A few weekends ago my daughter had an “atypical migraine episode” and had to be taken to hospital by ambulance. The following weekend my computer was stolen and we had the police round to view the scene of crime and take statements.
“Do you realise we’ve had a different emergency service out two Saturdays running,” said my daughter after the CSI team had left. “That must mean we’re going to have a fire next Saturday, as it’s the only one left.”
Even writing this makes me feel I might be tempting fate, although I know rationally that the two events were entirely unconnected and that “bad luck” doesn’t come in threes, as the old saying claims – it’s simply that the human brain has developed an amazing ability to find patterns in not only landscapes and images, mathematics and geological events, but also in our own experiences and expectations.
Some of us are better at finding patterns in different things than others, and the different patterns we each see are indicative of our ways of perceiving and thinking about our experience.
The Rorschach inkblot test (also called the “Rorschach” test), in which participants are asked to describe pictures or patterns they see in random inkblots, is a method of psychological evaluation. Psychologists use this test in an attempt to examine the personality characteristics and emotional functioning of their patients. This test is often employed in diagnosing underlying thought disorders and differentiating psychotic from non-psychotic thinking in cases where the patient is reluctant to openly admit to psychotic thinking.
You can take the Inkblot Test online here.
What do you see in the image above? The first thing I see is a woman wearing earrings and a full skirt carrying a basket on her head. The blot at the top to the right reminds me of a clipped poodle. The one to the left could be a dog’s head in profile looking at the “woman”. If I try hard enough I see two empty nightshirts (like cartoon headless ghosts) on either side of her waist with their arms out. The bottom blobs say nothing to me, even though I’ve tried hard to make them into meaningful shapes. The fact is, none of the meaning is there. We have a strong ability – and an innate desire – to find meaning by seeing patterns in every element of our lives.
The ability to find patterns in landscapes and weather, for instance, was vital to our ancestors’ survival and still plays a crucial role in our lives now. We need to be able to work out genuine cause and effect: what makes us ill or unhappy on a regular basis; what has positive effects and brings us pleasure.
But sometimes our pattern-finding abilities go into overdrive and tell us that patterns exist where none do. This is the cause of much superstition of the “I wore my stripy shirt to both the interviews I did well in, so it’s a lucky shirt and I’ll always wear it so I’ll do well” type. People who score highly on pattern-finding tests also tend to have more “paranormal” or weird experiences than average – such as seeing mysterious faces in a pool of water, or religious symbols in a vegetable. It has also been shown from research by Adam Galinsky and Jennifer Whitson of the University of Austin, Texas, that the more insecure or out of control we feel, the more likely we are to see patterns or make connections that don’t exist. In times of economic hardship, for example, far more people read their horoscopes.
Sometimes the false patterns that we read into our experiences work for our benefit – for instance, wearing the stripy shirt that I believe to be lucky could give me confidence, stop me panicking and therefore I will do better in the interview because I’m wearing it. This, of course, will verify my false pattern-finding and give me even more belief in my lucky shirt – until I fail an interview while wearing it, perhaps more than once, and I have to re-evaluate the pattern I’ve perceived. Perhaps it will then become my unlucky shirt.
On the other hand, perceiving false patterns in our experience can work against our best interests and well-being. “Self-defeating assumptions”, as psychologists call them, build in our minds when we make an association between negative incidents and create a false pattern from them. For ancient survival reasons, our brain has a bias towards the negative and often pays more attention and gives more weight to negative than positive. So if in the past we have been made redundant, and this happens to us again – despite the fact that we may have had a number of successful jobs we have chosen to move on from, or that this current unemployment is more to do with the economic situation than our performance – we may be more ready to find a pattern of employment failure in our life – which will affect how we view our past and approach new work.
So, it’s important to recognise whether we might be creating or have created false negative patterns – and avoid self-defeating assumptions. If you lose a job or a partner leaves you, it is important not to internalise the rejection and assume you’ll never be employed or loved again. Don’t allow one rejection to derail your dreams, make you fearful of the future or lower your self esteem. The more in control and secure you feel, the less likely you are to find negative false patterns in the events of your life.
“Give a person a sense of security and control, and defensiveness and obsessiveness melt away.” Jennifer Whitson.
Luckily my daughter’s pattern-finding in emergency service visits was false – we haven’t had to call the fire service, so far!