Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Pattern seeking or pattern making

[This piece was part of an e-mail I sent to a colleague after interviewing a candidate.]

I used to think of us humans as pattern seekers. Now I'm inclined to think of us as pattern makers.  We imprint patterns upon unconnected events. We need to. Finding method, structure and causation in everything is not only intellectually satisfying; it's an evolutionary survival skill. If most sabertooths lurk in tall savanna grass, then it's advantageous to associate the pattern of swaying blades of grass with danger. That's why abstract art works, and traffic lights ... and our intuitions about people. Most of the time.

Smiling people are mostly friendly. Frowning people are mostly unfriendly. Talkative people who monopolize conversations and say things like "those PhD candidates knew more than they think" are mostly dominant, polarizing types.

However, these pattern-forming traits of ours aren't fail-proof. We find that smiling politicians act like barbarians. We find that genuine-looking works of art are fakes. And we may find that garrulous, opinionated people are in fact quite genuine, warm, insecure types under the bluster.

As I grow old(er), I trust my intuitions less and less, and the world is an ever-more brilliant place because of it!

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