Made an Alexa skill to illustrate a cognitive magic trick

So here’s a nice lit­tle illus­tra­tion of one the rea­sons why we’re the planet’s most suc­cess­ful preda­tor  and yet are also capa­ble of believ­ing cli­mate change doesn’t exist or that the world is flat.

I’m a big fan of the  You Are Not So Smart pod­cast,  which deep dives into cog­ni­tive quirks and things like the Back­fire Effect, active infor­ma­tion avoid­anceCon­fir­ma­tion Bias and all kinds of essen­tial knowl­edge about human behav­iour for any­one look­ing to cre­ate social change.

David McRany, the pod­cast author (full dis­clo­sure, I’m a patre­on) did an epsiode on Desir­abil­i­ty Bias, a com­pan­ion bias to Con­fir­ma­tion bias — the phe­nom­e­na that accounts for how we select to hear pat­terns that con­firm our beliefs and dis­card those that don’t. Desir­abil­i­ty bias twists that bias even fur­ther, by mak­ing us fil­ter infor­ma­tion to provide evi­dence for futures we want to come true rather than ratio­nal­ly process the evi­dence of what future is actu­al­ly like­ly to come true.

Part of the way he illus­trat­ed our abil­i­ty to pick out pat­terns from chaos was a mag­ic trick. You lis­ten to what sounds like ran­dom noise, and try as you may, you can’t make any sense of it.

And then you hear the key, and sud­den­ly there’s no going back — it’s so obvi­ous, you feel some­what flab­ber­gast­ed you didn’t always hear it. What the trick demon­strates is a pret­ty star­tling exam­ple of how our brains present mean­ing and real­i­ty to us, and how eas­i­ly our per­cep­tion of real­i­ty can be changed when we have been exposed to a pat­tern.  Think about all the times you’ve heard a word for the first time, then heard it seem­ing­ly 4 times in the next week. Or think about how a repeat­ed phrase like “Fake News” starts to lift out of the back­ground of dai­ly noise to occu­py the cen­ter of our col­lec­tive atten­tion. This sim­ply lit­tle trick is a pret­ty potent demon­stra­tion of how selec­tive our lis­ten­ing can be. David McRany makes the case that it must have been a great sur­vival tool: the jun­gle is a noisy place, and those of us who could pick out the sound of a stalk­ing tiger would have been more like­ly to pass that skill down genet­i­cal­ly.

So why Alexa? I’ve been play­ing around with a great piece of labor-sav­ing soft­ware called Sto­ry­line, so I turned the audio mag­ic trick into an Alexa skill to try it out.  If you have an Alexa you can just enable the skill in the US, UK, India, Canada, or Aus­tralia or there’s a sim­u­la­tor ver­sion here for those who don’t.

Give it a lis­ten, either via the Alexa Skill or just lis­ten to the pod­cast: it’s total­ly freaky.

And for any­one look­ing for an easy way to build inter­ac­tive sto­ries for Alexa, Sto­ry­line rocks: I lit­er­al­ly built the Pat­tern Recog­ni­tion Mag­ic Trick in twen­ty min­utes.

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