Here is a fun and quick experiment to highlight one of the key traits that humans possess, far above and beyond other thinking animals; a trait that is both a powerful advantage, and a crippling liability.
Look at this:
The Dog chased the Red Ball.
It is difficult to explain how incredible is it, what you just did. You read that sentence, and you understood it. In probably less than half a second, you decoded 28 characters, you decoded the special order they were placed in, understood the meaning, and pulled up accurate and useful images of a Dog, and a Red Ball. Within a shadow of a fraction of a second you had established a relationship between the Dog and the Ball based on your understanding of the word “chasing”, and in fact, without even thinking of it, you probably placed that dog and ball in a setting and context which is, probably, accurate and useful and in line with the mental setting I had, based on no information I gave you, but pure inference from past experience.
It may not seem like it, at first, but that is a truly astounding amount of information processing cascading along innumerable paths of inter-related memories and models all in the blink of an eye and all without any active effort or conscious thought on your part. Even this basic act, understanding a simple sentence and matching it up to useful mental models, is the kind of thing that even the most advanced AI programs and fastest processors to date can only superficially imitate in carefully controlled contexts. Even the best brightest of other thinking animals are amateurs by comparison when recognizing patterns and matching them up to complex and contextual assumptions.
We are also incredibly good at modifying those models on the fly. You have a generic image of a Dog, and a Ball, and probably some vague park-esque setting in mind based on the sentence I gave you, but If I say the dog is a Pomeranian and he is chasing a ball too big for him, then you immediately and without effort change the mental image of the Dog to something probably radically different than what you had in mind a moment ago, and scale the ball up to an assumed sized relative to the size you know a Pomeranian to be. Again, this is an incredible feat of information processing, done without effort. This gift for pattern recognition and model building goes beyond being effortless. It is, in fact, mandatory. You can’t avoid doing it even if you wanted to. Bear in mind, at the top of the page, I did not say “Read this”, I said, “Look at this”, but you read it anyway.
Try again, try to just look at the letters and not read them, try and just see loops and squiggles and dots. Try to bend all of your will towards seeing a word as a shape without drawing any meaning out of it.
Look at this:
“The Boy walks down the Stairs.”
Unless you have a truly unique (and by unique I mean broken) brain, you cannot help but have read that sentence, no matter how hard you tried. You cannot choose to only see lines on a page, even if you want to. Further more, you cannot avoid pulling up a mental model of the scene based on generic assumptions. You cannot stop your mind from immediately generating an image of a generic boy, on generic stairs, established that he is moving along them in an assumed direction (as in left to right, information your brain filled in to complete mental model of stairs, even though my sentence gave no indication of the direction in which the stairs slope). If I alter the image, and tell you the boy is wearing a blue shirt, no possible force of will can keep you from understanding that word and altering your model.
This compulsory nature of our pattern-based intuition is what can make this normally vital and useful mental tool go awry, and become a damaging burden under certain conditions. It hinders us in understanding things outside of the normal scope of our inference, and critically biases our world view in a thousand unconscious ways.
We cannot not see patterns. Anyone who has stared at a random background long enough will know that faces and shapes will eventually begin to emerge. Mankind had always seen shapes of earthly things in the stars, even though we all know that the Universe is not arranged with Fish, Lions, or Greek Heroes in mind. We have always been prone to superstition, thinking that a certain pair of sneakers worn to several winning games may be lucky or that a person who narrowly avoided an accident may be favored by fortune, even though we know that these circumstances are simply coincidence. This kind of tendency feeds directly into supernatural beliefs. When we encounter something that is far outside of our normal scope of inference, or see something that our brain can’t generate a sensible model for, then we force the next-closest thing to fit.
Only a few days ago I was driving near an airport at night, and one of the planes above me, taking off, appeared as a weirdly hovering triangle of light. Of course I know that I was near an airport, and the effect was caused by the plane being in a steep climb, it’s vertical rather than horizontal movement creating the appearance of hovering. With only the nose and wing tip lights as points of reference the size and distance of the object was difficult to gauge, adding to the illusion. Even though I knew I was seeing a normal event from an abnormal angle, I was struck by how UFO like it seemed, and couldn’t help imagine an alien craft filling the space between the lights. Another excellent example of pattern-recognition run amok is a park near my home said to be haunted by the Bride under the Bridge, a ghost apparition that only appears at midnight when the moon is full. I have gone to see the bride myself, and she really is quite striking. A unique combination of water discoloration on the concrete under the bridge, coupled with the shadows cast by a full moon during the midnight hour, create a remarkably convincing image of an ethereal woman in a wedding dress floating below the bridge, where an obsessed ex-boyfriend slew her on her wedding night. Again, this is nothing more than a normal thing seen from an abnormal angle, but this tendency to see forms and patterns where they may be none spawns countless stories of Ghost and Ghouls and Aliens and Spirits.
Our tendency to operate on generic unconscious models also serves to reinforce and exacerbate many of our biases. As much as I may be a liberal who is strongly in favor of racial equality, when I picture a boy walking down stairs, he is a white boy. As much I support the equality for women, and try not to be Anglo-centric, when I read the words “Wealthy CEO” I picture a man in decidedly Western business attire. Obviously as soon as someone tells me the CEO is a Sikh or a woman, I can quickly and easily alter the image based on that new information, but that initial generic assumption is neigh-impossible to uproot.
So why does this matter? Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence to indicate that these inherent biases have very real impacts on our society. Even minor sources of discrimination, so small that nobody realizes they are consciously acting on them, can have real and significant effects when viewed on a scale large enough for all of those small acts to add up. For example, a study was conducted in 2001 and 2002 by the NBER Research Fellows in which they sent out nearly 5000 resumes to different employers across a wide range of professions and geographic locations, with the variable being whether or not the name of the applicant “sounded black” or “sounded white”. It was discovered that the resumes with black-sounding names got called back 50% less often than those with white-sounding names. Similarly late last year, Yolonda Spivey, who thought of herself as a well qualified professional, became frustrated that her online job search had yielded no responses or offers despite 10 years experience in her field and hundreds of jobs applied for. She re-posted her identical resume, under the exceptionally Caucasian name Bianca White, and received numerous job offers within 48 hours.
I do not believe that the 5000 employers in the NBER study, or the hundreds of employers in Yolonda’s experiment, were being deliberately or consciously racist. We can be all but certain that at least a few of those employers have since read these same studies and shaken their head in disappointment, without even realizing they were one of the employers involved. This is the kind of impact that our subconscious biases, which we ingrain in our default generic images of people, can have when blown up to the large scale.
It is not all a curse though. There is a way to keep the benefits of this pattern-seeking brain while mitigating the damages. The key is awareness. We may not ever be able to keep our unconscious brain from feeding us false assumptions, but we understand how the process works, and remain mindful of our own nature, can willfully choose not to act on those assumptions and inferences when not appropriate. We may not be able to consciously avoid being racist, or sexist, or Anglo-Centric in our most basic world-models, but we can be mindful of that influence and try to willfully counteract it, especially in important matters.
Feel free to respect and value your unconscious mind, and the amazing things it does, but above all else understand it. You cannot control, it, but you can understand it, and if you understand it, you can use it to its full extent where it’s most useful, and keep it in check where it’s most dangerous. In this way it becomes a power you control, rather than a power controlling you.