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Perceiving phoney patterns: apophenia

August 14, 2012
After a run of red lights, surely a green one is due, or is that a red flag?

How to recognise this tactic

This happens when you convince yourself, or someone tries to convince you, that some data reveal a significant pattern when really the data are random or meaningless. Some examples: seeing religious symbols in toasted bread or believing you are on a winning streak when gambling.

Canals on Mars by Giovanni Schiaparelli

‘Canals’ on Mars by Giovanni Schiaparelli

Why do people use this tactic?

This is one of those tactics we use on ourselves – a cognitive bias which prevents us from thinking rationally. We have all evolved the ability to detect patterns and regularities in our environment. Our ancestors used patterns they found in the seasons, in animal behaviour, in the earth’s crust, in materials, to help them survive. It is the major task of science to uncover patterns. Unfortunately, we often succumb to wishful thinking and ‘discover’ patterns that we want to be there, but are not. That’s apophenia. And scammers are quite prepared to exploit it.

What’s wrong with this tactic

Apophenia leads you to believe, wrongly, that you have evidence to support a position when you don’t. You believe you can continue to gamble because you’re on a winning streak, or that Mars is inhabited because some observers see canal-like patterns on its surface. It can lead you to ignore evidence that falsifies your position, or that supports a contrary position.

What to do when confronted by this tactic

Since it’s usually wishful thinking that leads us to find non-existent patterns, we need to guard against it first. Look for the signs, and guard against the temptation to dismiss evidence that doesn’t support your wishes. Beware of those who try to exploit your tendency for wishful thinking and discipline yourself to accept only conclusion that are supported by real-world evidence.

Variations and related tactics

Michael Shermer calls this cognitive bias ‘patternicity‘. It comes in several forms:

  • Pareidolia – finding shapes, such as faces, in things like clouds, geological features and slices of toast.
  • The gambler’s fallacy – believing that past random events can influence the probability of future ones, for example, that a flipped coin is more likely to show heads after a run of tails.
  • The clustering illusion – believing that the clusters that are always found in random data actually indicate something meaningful, for example, that a run of wins in a game of dice means you are on a winning streak.

In science, apophenia is related to what’s known as a Type I error, in which a test seems to show that two variables are related when, in fact, they are not. It can also contribute to confirmation bias, in which an investigator deliberately looks for evidence which supports a favoured model and avoids evidence which refutes it.

Apophenia is also related to the Texas sharpshooter fallacy, in which a person zooms in on an apparent pattern in the midst of a sea of data, and claims that this is the key to a significant issue (as in the fable of the Texas sharpshooter who fires random shots at a wall, then draws the bullseye around the tightest cluster of bullet holes).


  • On the political side of the debate over climate change, many fall into the trap of using current weather patterns to support their positions – a cold spell, for instance,  is quoted as evidence that the earth is not warming. Climate scientists are reluctant to claim that any particular event is due to global warming because they are aware of the dangers of the clustering illusion. Before any such pattern can be held up as real evidence, a convincing argument must be presented. James Hansen and colleagues have recently published an analysis (here and here) which, they claim, shows that recent weather events are consequences of global warming.
  • Here’s how difficult it is to decide whether the clustering illusion is at work or not. In the early 2000s, it became apparent that there was an unusually high occurrence of breast cancer among female employees at the ABC studios at Toowong in Queensland. In 2007, an expert panel found that the rate was six times higher than the rate of breast cancer in Queensland, and that there was only a 1 in 25 chance (estimated p value of 0.04) that this could have occurred by chance. It found a correlation between breast cancer occurrence and length of service at the studio, but could find no evidence that the cancer was due to any factor related to the site or to genetic or lifestyle factors of the employees. A 2009 study investigated breast cancer rates in ABC employees across Australia and found no increased rates in any other site. The ABC abandoned the Toowong studios and now operates from new facilities several kilometres away. Was the cancer cluster a statistical artefact or was there some yet unidentified cause?
  • In the early 1900s, German meteorologist Alfred Wegener noticed a pattern in the earth’s continental shapes. The edges of the continents appeared to fit into each other, like pieces of a jigsaw. This led him to believe they had once been joined together and he proposed his model of continental drift. Although this model explained many observations, it was not accepted by earth scientists because Wegener was unable to come up with a mechanism that could account for continents moving. Discoveries in the 1950s and 1960s revealed a mechanism, and Wegener’s idea became incorporated into the Plate Tectonic model.

Further reading

Pareidolia in Politics: The Face of Faith’s Corrupting Influence by Jeff Schweitzer at The Huffington Post.

You can add to the list of examples by leaving a comment.

Schiaparelli’s drawing is from Wikimedia Commons.

This is one of ScienceOrNot’s Science red flags. See them all here.
  1. Jim permalink

    I plan to market the “Divine Toast” toaster. It will have the ability to create toast patterns of different religious icons in the user’s shade choice. You will be able to have Jesus light, medium, or dark. Mohammed will not have an image for obvious reasons and Moses will have the option of splitting the toast in half.

  2. this leads me to the obvious….global warming…..and the conflicting scientific,or psuedo scientific arguments that are floating around……..difficult for an ordinary person to determine what is true and what is not…… i can reason is that yes there is some form of global warming…but is it a natural and therefore unalterable cycle?….if so people are milking it for economic and political reasons……or is it caused by human carbon emissions?…..i know not and am sceptical.

    Another thing i see relates to conspiracy theory…..there is one for every event…..a muddying of all waters to make it impossible to ever really know the truth…….propaganda and counter propaganda……..internet is a useful tool for distributing confusing noise……….

    i make marmalade which goes really well on toast if your interested………..

  3. looool constantly searching for religious figures in burnt toast. awesome.

  4. This sounds like the principles taught in the Landmark forum. That events occur, we attach meaning to them, other events occur and we associate them with the meaning of the first event not the event itself and end up convincing ourselves the meaning is real when really it is the event that happened. That’s the social science interpretation of what your saying…right?

  5. kollshi17 permalink

    thank you

  6. dellasman permalink

    Fascinating post. Unfortunately, many exploiters of wishful thinking make a good living at it: church leaders, ministers, etc. The word “apophenia” is not in my Oxford American unabridged dictionary, oddly enough.

  7. This was a great post! Looking forward to the next one.

  8. Jim, you have a great future in As Seen On TV!

  9. We have to accept however, that these “errors” evolved because they are adaptive, ie., these behaviors helped produce more kids and grandkids, etc. Albeit, adaptive a few millions years ago.

  10. I think we also find patterns because we are lazy. If we can find patterns, we don’t have to analyze each individual instance that comes up. We can quickly label something as part of a pattern and then move on to more interesting brain activities.

  11. Really nice post. I have seen many cases of Apophenia in my home country India, where people discover faces of gods and goddesses using random grain patterns on floors. People believe that a sudden rise in domestic expenditure might somehow be linked to bad ‘Vastu’ (similar to feng shui) or worse neighbor’s jealousy.
    Congrats on being freshly pressed!

  12. I quite like pareidolia, it may have no scientific basis, but it is fun!

  13. Anonymouse permalink

    Ah, you’ve found the secret to divination!

    Seriously, divination is about finding patterns in randomness, whether it’s in the throw of dice, what comes up in cards or coins, or whatever.

    The trick with divination, though, is not necessarily to assume that the random pattern is the reality you’re looking for (although diviners do that). Instead, the key trick is to pay attention to what you read into the randomness. That gives you real insight into the unconscious patterns you want to find. When you’re trying to answer some personal problem, those unconscious patterns in the divining materials can “miraculously” be the answers you need. In truth, you had those answers already, it’s just that, for whatever reason, you couldn’t get them consciously.

    This is why divination works pretty well for figuring out relationship difficulties, and very badly for predicting any unknown future event.

    Besides which, being human, you can’t eliminate your innate ability to find patterns, even where they don’t exist. Might as well have fun with it.

  14. Why is the Science Red Flag on your post? Were you showing us this site to explore and is the rating for your post, which seems rather reasonable to me, esp. as you’re pushing for evidence to base conclusions.

    • I get it now since apophenia is at the end of that list but the link was confusing to me.

  15. Great post, and congrats on the FP. 🙂
    As far as global warming, it makes sense to me in that humans have invented many machines/factories, etc. that produce fumes (emissions?), which could affect the climate… but I also have to wonder how we can say that global warming is occurring when we’ve only been recording temperatures for what, a couple of centuries?
    I’m not trying to be smart, I really just don’t get it. If the earth has been around for so long (which I’m willing to accept– not necessarily on the “young earth” bandwagon), but our recorded data only covers a tiny fraction of that time, how can we accurately say whether or not an alarming warming trend is taking place?
    And I do think a lot of people are making tons of money off that assumption. I’ve also read about the tampered-with “hockey stick” data, which doesn’t make a layman like myself very trusting of the “Academy.”

    • There’s a lot more to it than simply looking at temperature records. There are well established methods of estimating ancient temperatures using proxies. And then there is the actual science of the greenhouse effect. I think you’ve been misled about the hockey stick. You might like to have a look here and here.

  16. Great post! But with the case of confirmation bias, does the investigator “deliberately” look for evidence to support his belief or is this filtering subconscious?

    • I think with all cognitive biases, it’s usually unconscious, but people who carry out empirical investigations, like scientists, should be trained to recognise this and guard against it.

  17. Reblogged this on Extra Terrestrial Science and commented:
    I think I am guilty of this, but when discussing evolution our sample size is so small (sample size of 1) we can’t help but do this when we hypothesize. I hope you all know that I am hypothesizing, and that I fully believe that at least one of my hypotheses will be falsified. It’s figuring out which ones will be false that is difficult!

    • Nothing wrong with hypothesizing, Jani, as long as the hypotheses are tested in the real world. Most of the patterns we see are real ones; the problems start when we (unconsciously or not) impose patterns on random data because we want to see evidence for something that isn’t really there. Thanks for the reblog.

  18. Reblogged this on lifepsychleofastudent and commented:
    So interesting how the human mind is wired to link events and patterns together! Sometimes perhaps our minds are too clever for their own good and we can suffer for it (such as becoming gamblers, buying toast on eBay for a million pounds . . .).

  19. Reblogged this on lifepsychleofastudent and commented:
    So interesting how the human mind convince itself there’s patterns in obviously random events. Sometimes the complexity of the brain can be to its detriment – such as when we develop gambling problems, or when we buy toast off eBay for a million pounds . . .
    It could, however, also be to our advantage – finding ‘false’ patterns and gaining encouragement from them may be better for a person psychologically (even physiologically) than the feeling of no control over the situation, or no answers to a set of questions that have been bothering you.

    • I can’t agree with your last paragraph, lifepsychleofastudent. It sounds too much like wishful thinking to me. Gaining encouragement from finding non-existent patterns is liable to cause even more damage when you finally bump up against reality. It’s far preferable to maintain a feeling of hope by realising that, although there’s no magic solution to the problem at the moment, a real pattern may turn up in the future, especially if you search in a rational manner.

  20. David Pfister permalink

    This still doesn’t explain why bad things always happens in threes.

    • I think it does, if you allow a bit of confirmation bias as well. Because the superstition says that bad things come in threes, we look for a cluster of three events to confirm it, then stop looking once the third has happened. If the superstition said that bad things come in fours, that’s what we’d look for and that’s what we’d find. Three is just a convenient number.

  21. David Pfister permalink

    Just today my wife served me dinner and I swear it looked just like the Flying Spaghetti Monster! I dropped to my knees and prayed. It’s a sign.

  22. Andy permalink

    I actually heard that Jesus saw himself in a piece of toast at the last supper and passed it around telling everyone that it was his body.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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