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 avoidance, Confirmation 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.