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 to 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
- 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 Personality, 33(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 Psychology, 129(3), 279.
- Masterclass. (2021). 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.
- Rosen, R. (2012). Pareidolia: A bizarre bug of the human mind emerges in computers. The Atlantic.
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.