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What Is… Apophenia (Finding Patterns Where None Exist)

Insights into psychology: apophenia & pareidolia

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is apophenia.

Apophenia is a type of cognitive bias involving the tendency to find patterns where they don’t actually exist, i.e. in things that are unrelated or random. It was first described by neurologist Klaus Conrad in 1958 in relation to patients with schizophrenia.

Statistically speaking, apophenia is a type I error, or a false positive. This is like a false positive COVID test would say you have COVID, when you actually don’t, whereas a false negative would be a test that tells you that you don’t have COVID, when you actually do.

In terms of evolution, making false positive errors in terms of pattern perception would likely have conferred an advantage over false negative errors (like making you less likely to get eaten).

Patterns in randomness

Humans tend to have a difficult time distinguishing between random and nonrandom. One type of apophenia is the clustering illusion, which involves the tendency to see trends in data sets that are actually random. Truly random data naturally contains clusters or streaks of data elements, but we tend perceive those clusters as evidence of non-randomness.

As an example of this, if you flip a coin 10 times in a row, HHHHHHHHHH looks a whole lot less random than if I flip HTHTHTHTHT. However, both are just as possible as random results. When the result of a coin flip can be either heads or tails, and you do it 10 times, then the number of possible sequences is 210, which is 1024. No specific sequence is any more likely than any other sequence, and the coin has no memory of what it’s already done, so your result is just as random as mine, no matter how much more patterned your result looks.

Speaking of the coin not knowing what it’s already done, another type of apophenia is the gambler’s fallacy, which is the idea that odds change after a series of outcomes. This might make you think that after flipping 9 heads, the odds are higher that the 10th flip will be tails based on the pattern so far, whereas the odds are still 50:50, same as ever.

Pareidolia

While apophenia refers to finding patterns in general information, pareidolia involves finding patterns in visual information. Burnt toast seems to be a popular place to see Jesus and other assorted figures.

"Face on Mars" – a mesa resembling a face from a NASA satellite image of Mars

While we can find all sorts of things, human faces are the most common. This image, taken from Wikipedia, is an image of a mesa on Mars taken by NASA’s Viking mission. It’s been described as the “Face on Mars,” and some people got excited that it was evidence of an alien civilization.

Note that the black dots are data errors, so the apparent hairline, right nostril, and point on the chin are not actually present on the landmass.

The Wikipedia pareidolia page has more examples.

Computer facial recognition software also has false positives detecting faces, but at a lower rate than humans do.

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias makes us seek out and believe information that’s consistent with what we already believe, and ignore information that’s inconsistent. Once we start to think we see a pattern, we pay attention to things that confirm it and ignore information that suggests there isn’t a pattern.

Personality

One of the Big Five personality traits is openness/intellect. This has two aspects: openness is the tendency to engage with aesthetic and sensory information, while intellect refers to engagement with abstract and intellectual information. Openness is associated with creativity.

As shown in the diagram below, the openness and intellect aspects have multiple facets. Apophenia is at the extreme right of openness. Intelligence is a facet of intellect, and intelligence and apophenia represent opposite extremes within that openness/intellect trait.

big five model of personality: traits, aspects, and facets

Pseudo-profound bullshit

While this sounds like something I would make up, it actually comes from a paper in the European Journal of Personality. Pseudo-profound bullshit (PPBS) refers to meaningless but structurally correct statements that are made to seem profound. In the study, higher measures of apophenia were associated with greater ratings of the profundity of PPBS. The authors suggested that susceptibility to PPBS is actually a form of apophenia.

Contexts for apophenia

Conspiracy theories often involve finding patterns where there are none. Think COVID and 5G, or vaccines and autism. Paranormal beliefs, like astrology, telepathy, and superstitions, are also linked to apophenia.

Apophenia is present in psychosis as well as schizotypy, a pattern of erroneous thinking seen in schizotypal personality disorder and in schizophrenia. Examples of schizotypal thought patterns include magical thinking (the idea that doing/thinking one thing can influence an unrelated outcome) and ideas of reference (believing things in the environment have particular personal relevance).

Some researchers have suggested the stereotyped link of mad genius or mentally ill artist might relate to apophenia’s relationship to creativity and intelligence via the openness/intellect trait.

Thoughts

Apophenia isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the key is being able to recognize that not all detected patterns are true. Greater intelligence may make it easier to distinguish between perceived patterns that are real and those that are not.

It’s hard to say how much I find patterns that aren’t actually there. I certainly see the Mars face. I think I have a fairly high index of suspicion when it comes to interpreting perceived patterns as being meaningful, but I think that’s less a matter of perceiving patterns and more a matter of applying cognitive control over how I choose to interpret those patterns.

Does apophenia sound like something you think you’re prone to? And do you see the Mars face?

Sources

  • Bainbridge, T. F., Quinlan, J. A., Mar, R. A., & Smillie, L. D. (2019). Openness/intellect and susceptibility to pseudo–profound bullshit: A replication and extension. European Journal of Personality33(1), 72-88.
  • Blain, S. D., Longenecker, J. M., Grazioplene, R. G., Klimes-Dougan, B., & DeYoung, C. G. (2020). Apophenia as the disposition to false positives: A unifying framework for openness and psychoticism. Journal of Abnormal Psychology129(3), 279.
  • Masterclass: Apophenia Explained: How to Avoid Apophenia Bias
  • Oleynick, V. C., DeYoung, C. G., Hyde, E., Kaufman, S. B., Beaty, R. E., & Silvia, P. J. (2017). Openness/intellect: The core of the creative personality.
  • The Atlantic: Pareidolia: A Bizarre Bug of the Human Mind Emerges in Computers
The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

46 thoughts on “What Is… Apophenia (Finding Patterns Where None Exist)”

  1. Oh, I definitely have apophenia! Sometimes I can clearly see that the patterns I recognised are not really there, at other times I’m not really sure and once in a while I prefer to believe they are actually there even if I know I don’t really have enough proof.
    It doesn’t bother me though and I don’t think it affects my life negatively – as an autistic person I don’t normally know what is happening around me so one pattern more or less, or even a couple of them doesn’t really make any difference.

    1. I was just looking at a study that looked at differences in thinking styles between autism and schizotypy, and it sounds like autism is associated with increased recognition of patterns that are actually there, while schizotypy involves an increased likelihood to find patterns that don’t exist.

      1. Possibly, but the coin example, although obviously I understand it on cognitive level, feels so wrong 😛

        There was actually an instance of someone in Poland who won the highest lottery prize twice in a row. It still feels to me like they shouldn’t win the second time because they already won once.

          1. Well, she was right in a way. If she didn’t use this system, she would have different numbers so she wouldn’t win. Although obviously she could then win on a different day.

            1. Well, I suppose you’re right. Obviously I understand systems don’t work for lotteries, but I guess someone who didn’t study probability at school may not fully get it.

  2. I have an unhealthy relationship with numbers, and have had one for quite awhile. I will sometimes attribute meaning to numbers, when there really isn’t any. However, my mind doesn’t seem to think so much of the time. Hence a schizophrenia symptom I experience.

      1. Yeah, my diagnosis is schizoaffective disorder, which I guess means I could have a propensity to do this. In any event, though, I it can easily cause me problems when I do do this. Depending on what’s happening at the time, it may or may not be real problematic.

  3. Super interesting piece. Incorrect apophenia isn’t my jam – I anthropomorphize like anything, but I don’t make these kinds of errors, generally speaking. Perhaps because of my studies: statistics figured heavily, and understanding them would seem to go a way to disinclining someone from apophenic mistakes (I’m going to use this word until I own it. Then I’m going to drop it on everyone drawn to political extremes: they find patterns of meaning in tablecloths).

    I love the coin and odds examples. People really hate to believe that they’re true. My friends seek out roulette tables that haven’t posted their lucky numbers, thinking that they’re more likely to hit if they haven’t hit already. Sometimes it even works (confirmation bias).

    1. I’m a big anthropomorphizer too.

      I didn’t take a lot of stats in school, but I tend to be pretty logical in my thought process, so I usually look for a reasonable how to explain patterns. If I don’t see a reasonable how, that it’s probably going in the apophenic mistakes box.

      The whole Q-Anon nonsense seems like a particularly good example of finding patterns of meaning in tablecloths.

  4. Interesting post! First, I see the face. Second, I know it’s not a face. Third, I find lots of patterns daily, mostly with numbers, and it makes things more fun. Do I think they “mean” anything? Usually not!

    1. It seems like that’s the key thing that differentiates pattern-finding as a problem or not. Finding them? Perfectly normal. Not being able to take that next step to realize they don’t “mean” something deeper? That’s getting more into symptom territory.

  5. Fascinating. My wife suffered terrible apophenia in her bouts with acute psychosis, but I never knew a term existed to label it. It’s even more interesting that PPBS has been defined. When she was at her worst–terribly psychotic for days or weeks on end–I found little time to sleep. During those periods, her linking together of various clues would sometimes stun me. I’d see her connections as so profound that I would wonder if she was actually thinking clearly and brilliantly, and I was the one suffering through my sleep deprivation. Very familiar with ideas of reference and magical thinking as well.

  6. Very interesting read. I tend to get really engaged when I perceive a pattern in everyday data around me. Given your discussion, it may be that these patterns that I perceive are the subset of data where the macro dataset is random. I would like like to know more about this as developing parallel datasets is one of my interests. It would be good to know if this is based on random or non-random occurrences so as to determine what level of import to place on developing patterns in the future. Perhaps what I see as a pattern at the micro level is really a random dataset at the macro level. Again thanks for the thought-provoking read.

    1. Wikipedia says the clustering illusion is “the tendency to erroneously consider the inevitable ‘streaks’ or ‘clusters’ arising in small samples from random distributions to be non-random.” I think that makes a good reminder that looking at the macro level can provide context that can’t be seen when focused on the micro level.

  7. Also I guess another way of looking at it is that the macro datasets are almost always random even when the micro datasets are not. So maybe random is the a priori state and meaningfulness or patterns or non-randomness is just something we can see in the details once we get close up.

    Sorry that’s where my brain goes with that….:)

  8. While I obviously know about finding patterns, like how those see Jesus in their toast, I’d never heard of the terms Apophenia and Pareidolia before. Definitely learned something new today, not that my brain will ever be able to remember those words.

    I can see confirmation bias being important here after you think there might be something there, or perhaps if someone else has said there is. It seems logical that personality can come into it to contribute to how or why some might see such patterns to begin with.

    There is a term I should be able to remember though. Pseudo-profound bullshit. I LOVE that. To use it in a sentence, would it be correct to say that “my government speaks a considerable amount of pseudo-profound bullshit”? Or “my condescending GP practice comes out with a lot of PPB to gaslight their patients”?

    xx

  9. I feel that I do see patterns, and certainly my father comes to me with perceived patterns and ‘coincidences.’ I try to be realistic about things. I believe in God and so am theoretically open to non-random patterns (i.e. meaning) in the universe, but I am towards the rationalist end of the religious spectrum. I think true miracles are rare; often things are just bizarre coincidences, but is it a coincidence if it seems to contain meaning? It’s hard to tell what is unlikely from what is miraculous. As someone with a degree in history, I’m aware that historical events have often been influenced by happenstance. Does that indicate meaning or patterns in history or just coincidence? Certainly some “amazing” coincidences other religious Jews talk about often seem unsurprising or question-begging in different ways (ethical as well as statistical). On the other hand, things that seem religiously significant to me don’t seem as such to other people.

    1. “But is it a coincidence if it seems to contain meaning?” – Interesting question. And if people impute meaning, does that become its own version of reality? Hmm, interesting things to ponder.

  10. Does apophenia sound like something you think you’re prone to? And do you see the Mars face? A little bit. I’m more prone to the other one you mentioned Pareidolia. I see ‘faces’, human and animal in stuff like tile on my bathroom floor. It’s a marbled type of tile, and I’m always finding new faces there if I stare at it for very long. I did see the Mars face. That was easy. Even in the Wiki article when they ‘cleaned it up’ to show the actual rock formation – those looked like faces to me too…one of them from Planet of the Apes. How oddly appropriate… 😉 Good post!

  11. Man, nobody’s ever though of me as schizophrenic, but I think I am susceptible to most or all of those traits. This may explain why certain people look at me oddly when I express a perception of a possible parallel.

    For example, there were times when the facilitator of the Men’s Group would select the weekly questions, and they would apply eerily to some personal situation that was going on with me. Then I accosted the pastor (the best friend of the facilitator) who knew my personal situations, and suggested he had been feeding the information to the facilitator.

    This happened not once but twice, before I brought it to the attention of the pastor (who then looked at me as though I were crazy.)

          1. Interesting! So “innovation/imagination” is a feature both of openness and intellect, according to this model. I wonder if though if there is a spectrum from “apophenia” to “intelligence;” that is, apophenia being the worst in some way, and intelligence the best.

  12. I loved this post! I tend to be the one who “sees” patterns when there likely are none. Or better stated I believe there are metadatasets that in one context mean ABC but used as a parallel dataset may mean 123 in a different context. I am open to questioning the existence or the relevance of the pattern though they often “pop up” on my radar screen. May just be a side impact of persistent bipolar. The patterns and co-incidences used to make me more prone to being ill. Now, I think they are interesting and maybe relevant and maybe not. This post keeps me in check….

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