Have you ever recognised something familiar embedded in something strange — a shape in the clouds or a face in the shadows? Have you ever noticed a pattern scattered through disconnected phenomena — repetition in data or similarity in scenarios? How do we know when an observation is deeply meaningful or simply coincidence?
This might help explain why we see more people going with their gut, rather than sticking to science, or how some brands evoke emotional reactions from audiences while others remain distant and disconnected. (Read more on “apophenia” if this topic interests you.)
Lucky number 7
I recall a professor once saying to a room full of bright-eyed anthropology students that, as human beings, we only see what we expect to see and what we expect to see is what we are conditioned to see. This stuck with me. I wondered if my reality was determined by how I perceived the world around me. Was my perspective conditioned by an inherent and innate nature, or was it conditional to nurtured experiences and circumstances?
Take, for example, the number seven. It might start with me moving into house no. 7 in the street. I then notice my mom reading Lucinda Riley’s The Seven Sisters book series. I come across a theory on the science of human origin in Africa, called “The Seven Daughters of Eve”. I am reminded of the seven sins and seven virtues as I research a project relating to religious philosophy. I then see Hennessy’s Seven Worlds advert. What, if anything, is the significance of the number seven in relation to my life?
“Confirmation bias” is the term psychologists have long used to describe “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values”. Businesses are catching on. If you search online for articles on the use of confirmation bias in market research and in advertising, you might be surprised to see what you find. For example, one is titled: “How errors in reasoning can be used in marketing”. It goes on to list five ways to ‘exploit’ this phenomenon.
This could potentially be tied into another conversation regarding Gestalt theory, which designers have been incorporating into user experience (UX) and related fields: “Gestalt Principles are principles/laws of human perception that describe how humans group similar elements, recognize patterns and simplify complex images when we perceive objects.”
Correlation is not causation
Anthropologist Leslie White has argued that our ability to translate and transform symbols in meaningful ways is one of the key qualities that makes us human. The challenge, however, is discerning the meaningful from the meaningless. This is not to be confused with the notion often shared in research settings: “the absence of insight is an insight in itself.”
Put another way: we exist in living systems that continuously change. Meaning-making occurs within this same state of existence. Just as we live and die and life continues, so too must meaning rise and fall and endure. Dave Snowden and Nora Bateson, in a recent dialogue on “when meaning loses its meaning”, explored “how meanings stretch, transform and sometimes wear out across ecosystems of communication”.
What will you do differently today to look at the world differently — to make conscious decisions in some situations and to let go of control in others?
Originally published on Marklives