This is a picture of the surface of Mars taken by the Viking Orbiter spacecraft in 1976.
It looks for all the world like a human face staring up from the Martian landscape. And this is when the conspiracy theorists and science fiction geeks go into overdrive. How did it get there? Surely this proves that David Bowie and HG Wells were right all along? There is life on the red planet?
Then take a look at this one. Do you see a picture of Jesus staring back at you from this piece of toast?
Or this one?
What is happening here is that the human brain is very good at spotting patterns. It is a survival instinct – the ability to see a predator hiding in the undergrowth.
Experiments have shown that babies can recognise human faces almost as soon as they are born. They will instinctively turn their heads towards a human face. It goes deeper than that. Babies are hardwired to look at attractive faces more than ugly ones.
In many cases, the patterns that we spot aren’t real. We might think we see a tiger in the bushes, but it could turn out to be a trick of the light. Shadows caused by an accidental arrangement of branches.
In a survival situation, that is a useful trait to have. It is far better to be oversensitive than less sensitive. Nothing is lost if we over-react to a shape in the bushes. If we under-react and miss a tiger it could be the one that eats us for breakfast.
It is a simple and inescapable truth. Humans see patterns, including patterns that aren’t there. It’s what we do.
Hold that thought. We will come back to it in a minute.
As a writer, I am constantly looking for ways to market my writing. People seem to like what I write. My problem is that I can’t get enough people to come and try it for themselves. And here it seems that human pattern recognition skills are really important. Much more important than we might realise.
When we look at a book cover wondering whether to buy it, we instinctively make connections between that cover and the covers of other books we have read in the past. So while we think that we want a cover to be original and to stand out, most of the time we really need the cover to blend in.
Take a look in any physical bookstore or an online shop like Amazon and you will see the same thing. There is a definite “look” for a particular genre. Comedy books tend to have bouncy fonts and cartoons on the cover. Thrillers go for moody photographs and straight fonts. Fantasy books have half naked women in unfeasibly skimpy armour. Or dragons. Or dragons in unfeasibly skimpy armour.
Romance books tend to have pictures hunky men in frilly shirts – if the action ends at the bedroom door. Or hunky men without frilly shorts if the action starts at the bedroom door.
And on it goes. We are drawn to certain book covers or titles or blurbs because of our pattern spotting tendencies.
There is more. This pattern-spotting trait also helps to explain why gambling works.
In a rational world, almost no-one would gamble. In the long run, the only people who profit from gambling are the bookies plus an astonishingly small number of winners who are either incredibly lucky or very skilled. Everyone else loses money.
But gamblers don’t see that. What they see is a connection between their small stake and the huge jackpot that they could win.
That’s why the lottery markets itself with the thought that “It could be you.” They get you to think about what you would do with your winnings – without mentioning the huge number of people who lose.
The logic seems to be:
- winning would improve my life
- someone has to win
- I am someone
- therefore I will win
And somewhere along the line we convince ourselves that winning is inevitable. “This time next year we will be millionaires”.
This sort of thinking is also rife in the self-publishing world. We all dream that our book will hit the big time. The reality is that 99.9% of self-published books won’t sell more than a couple of hundred copies. If you’re lucky.
There is an industry that has grown up around self-publishing. The internet is full of companies who will offer to market your book on social media, proof read it, give you 1,000 five star reviews. You can book an endless number of books telling you “how to” … write a bestseller, design a cover, get good reviews.
And they are all preying on the same thought – the false connection we have made between our book and success. Yes, Hugh Howey made a fortune with his Wool series. That doesn’t mean that my sci-fi epic “Crocheting” is going to be equally successful.
Just because someone has won, it doesn’t mean that I will win too. That pattern is as false as seeing a tiger that isn’t there.
This pattern thing is at the heart of modern politics. We have long since stopped choosing our Governments on the basis of rational choices. Instead we make decisions based on irrational patterns – this politician can be trusted, this one is out of touch with the electorate, that one is a racist. Ed Milliband has two kitchens. David Cameron went to Eton.
It isn’t any way to run a democracy. We are making decisions based on optical illusions and sound-bites. It has no more basis in reality than the face on Mars.
The world would be an immeasurably better place if we all realised the simple truth – humans are very good at spotting patterns. Including patterns that aren’t really there.
Remember that face on Mars? This is what it looks like from a better angle…