As Ellen left, closing the door behind her, Irene wrote "Ellen" across the top of her pad, tore off the top sheet, opened her right side desk file drawer, and filed the sheet in the growing file she was keeping on Mort. She closed the drawer, and realized again how many people had come to her complaining about him. Mort was becoming a problem.
She picked up her phone and punched Sid's number. "Sid here," he answered.
"Hi Sid, Irene. I need some advice. Got another complaint about Mort."
"Ah," Sid replied. "Does it fit the pattern?"
"In some ways. I mean, it is another complaint. But you might be right — it might not really be about Mort. That's why I want to talk."
Irene and Sid are struggling to decide whether a string of similar events — in this case, complaints about Mort — are really part of a pattern, or whether, perhaps, they're just a coincidental string of similar events. It's sometimes difficult to tell.
we see patterns
that aren't thereWhen we make important decisions, we can't always tell whether the event streams on which we base those decisions are actually trends that convey deeper meaning, or whether they're just coincidences. Too often, we attribute meaning incorrectly, and we use that meaning to make choices that we later come to regret. Here are some insights about streams of similar events.
- Coincidences do happen
- We hear people say sometimes "There are no coincidences," or "I don't believe in coincidences." Sounds nice, but such expressions are a little melodramatic. Coincidences do happen.
- We see more patterns than there are
- We often extrapolate data we have to cover situations not yet observed, and we predict behavior in those situations. This is one of the abilities that has made humans so successful as a species. And often, we're mistaken about patterns. Our ability to err in this way is the basis of optical illusions, magic tricks and con games.
- We misunderstand statistics
- When we experience two similar events, we ask ourselves, "What are the odds of this being a coincidence?" The odds often seem so sky-high that we decide that it cannot be a coincidence. Yet, coincidences do happen, because the universe is so big. For instance, the last two US Presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, were born in 1946, 44 days apart. The next US President will be the 44th. Coincidence? Absolutely.
When you next say to yourself "This can't be a coincidence," ask, "How do I know that?" If the answer is along the lines of, "It just seems so unlikely," try harder to find real evidence. Unless you find evidence, admit to yourself that you're just using your judgment.
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- Scott Lord
- Edward De Bono has some interesting insights into patterns in some of his books. The main point he makes is that our minds are trained early to look for patterns. When we identify one, we can stop thinking. We already know where this line of thinking, or sequence of events or quotation or whatever will lead. We think until we see a pattern, then we stop thinking. It's scary because coincidences can do the same thing. We see a trend, a pattern and we take them to the end. (Stop thinking).
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Like most things, it probably does take talent to be among the first rank of those who make conjectures.
But being in the second rank is pretty good, too, and we can learn how to do that.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 27: Brainstorming and Speedstorming: II
- Recent research into the effectiveness of brainstorming has raised some questions. Motivated to examine alternatives, I ran into speedstorming. Here's Part II of an exploration of the properties of speedstorming. Available here and by RSS on February 27.
- And on March 6: A Pain Scale for Meetings
- Most meetings could be shorter, less frequent, and more productive than they are. Part of the problem is that we don't realize how much we do to get in our own way. If we track the incidents of dysfunctional activity, we can use the data to spot trends and take corrective action. Available here and by RSS on March 6.
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