Thomas Gilovich
How We Know What Isn't So

In 1677, Baruch Spinoza wrote his famous words, 'Nature abhors a vacuum,' to describe a host of physical phenomena. Three hundred years later, it seems that his statement applies as well to human nature, for it too abhors a vacuum. We are predisposed to see order, pattern, and meaning in the world, and we find randomness, chaos, and meaninglessness unsatisfying. Human nature abhors a lack of predictability and the absence of meaning. As a consequence, we tend to 'see' order where there is none, and we spot meaningful patterns where only the vagaries of chance are operating.

People look at the irregularities of heavenly bodies and see a face on the surface of the moon or a series of canals on Mars. Parents listen to their teenagers' music backwards and claim to hear Satanic messages in the chaotic waves of noise that are produced. While praying for his critically ill son, a man looks at the wood grain on the hospital room door and claims to see the face of Jesus; hundreds now visit the clinic each year and confirm the miraculous likeness. Gamblers claim that they experience hot and cold streaks in random rolls of the dice, and they alter their
bets accordingly.

The more one thinks about Spinoza's phrase, the better it fits as a description of human nature. Nature does not 'abhor' a vacuum in the sense of 'to loathe' or 'to regard with extreme repugnance' (Webster's definition). Nature has no rooting interest. The same is largely true of human nature as well. Often we impose order even when there is no motive to do so. We do not 'want' to see a man in the moon. We do not profit from the illusion. We just see it.

The tendency to impute order to ambiguous stimuli is simply built into the cognitive machinery we us to apprehend the world. It may have been bred into us through evolution because of its general adaptiveness: We can capitalize on ordered phenomena in ways that we cannot on those that are random. The predisposition to detect patterns and make connections is what leads to discovery and advance. The problem, however, is that the tendency is so strong and so automatic that we sometimes detect coherence even when it does not exist.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.