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Forming Predictions

Essentially, the brain used less and less energy as event seemed more and more predictable, but when something unexpected happened suddenly the prefrontal cortex sprang into action to form a new prediction.

Looking for structure

Patterns don’t have to be in time when we look at a mesa on Mars and see a face that’s because our brains are interpreting the collection of cliffs and plateaus as a face like pattern. We are particularly good at seeing bases and almost anything. If you look around where you are right now you might see a face in a pattern and would on the front end of a car or computer monitor.

Your brain is constantly looking for structure out there in the world, it’s looking for something that’s predictable that’s meaningful that it can use to guide behavior. When we see a predictable pattern and anticipate what will happen next, we can use simple rules like the heuristics I talked about in the previous lecture. That helps us not only to avoid unnecessary processing, but also to make better decisions.

Studying beliefs

People believe that they see patterns in all sorts of places from the stock market the horse comes. It’s very easy to dismiss those beliefs as superstitions or as foolishness and then to ignore the lessons that they teach us. Let’s see what we can learn from studying them instead. We’ve all experienced things that seem unexplainable: we are thinking about a friend with whom we haven’t spoken in months and then that friend calls us that very day.

To present-day scientists such experiences are just random coincidences, but in the first half of the 20th century incidents like this were seen by some people as legitimate. Scientific evidence of extrasensory perception or ESP. Probably the most famous proponent of ESP research was J.B. Rhine. He was a botanist who became fascinated with these phenomena.

Guessing the unknown

Rhine coined the term ESP because of his belief that people can perceive things without relying on the usual senses like sight or hearing. Rhine did try to apply scientific methods to the study of ESP in fact early in his career he became famous for debunking a Boston socialite who claim to communicate with the dead. His skepticism enraged  the social elites famous supporters, one of whom was a British writer who accuse rhyme of colossal impertinence.

In a colossal irony that defender of ESP was none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the most rational character in literature Sherlock Holmes. As Rhine’s career progressed he decided that he needed a way to rigorously test ESP, so in the 1930s he created a deck of 25 cards, each with one of five simple shapes. To test for ESP he would bring someone into his laboratory, shuffle the deck face down and then ask them to guess what shape would come next, one guess at a time for the 25 cards.

Getting close to chance

Most people would guess about five out of the 25 correctly, that’s close to chance, but occasionally someone would guess 10 correctly or 12 correctly or perhaps even more. Does that mean that person has ESP or did they just get lucky? Well, when you looked more closely at Rhine’s data you notice that if someone did very well one test, say they guess 12 out of 25 correctly then they do less well in subsequent tests.

If you look at their data over hundreds of tests their overall guessing rate would be very close to chance. Even if one interprets Rhine’s in the most charitable way, the effects of ESP are vanishingly small and they are inconsistent with both physics and biology. Yet, despite these concerns Rhine believed the ESP throughout his entire life.

No plausible mechanism behind guessing

So why did he believe? Think of all the times that he ran experiments, all the times that he watched someone guess 4, 5, 6 cards in a row. He probably observed more patterns that seem to provide evidence for ESP than any other person in human history, but here’s the key idea: a short-term pattern might just be chance, not evidence. Over nearly a century of research there’s never been a single example of a person who can walk into a room, sit down at a table and always guess cards at a rate greater than chance.

Nor has anyone identified a plausible biological mechanism by which ESP could arise as time has passed since Rhine’s early studies the evidence for ESP hasn’t gotten any stronger that’s one of the hallmarks of a random process. We can’t learn from it over time. Let me move to a second example: gambling. Modern casinos know that people see patterns in random events and they take full advantage.

Odds don’t matter

Consider the game of roulette: a small ball is spun around a numbered rotating wheel and the players bet on which number the ball will stop. From spin to spin the outcome will be completely random, the wheel rotates so fast that even tiny changes in how the ball spun have unpredictable effects, but if you walk by a modern roulette table you’ll often see an electronic scoreboard that shows the outcomes of the last few spends.

Players will check those scoreboards to look for patterns and will stay at the table and change their beds accordingly. It doesn’t matter what they bet, the house advantage is the same regardless so why does the casino provide the scoreboards? To keep players at the table. The casino just wants them to see patterns and keep betting.