What Is Psychology?

CHAPTER 1: Thinking Critically With Psychological Science

What Is Psychology?

A smile is a smile the world around

Throughout this book, you will see examples not only of our cultural and gender diversity but also of the similarities that define our shared human nature. People in different cultures vary in when and how often they smile, but a naturally happy smile means the same thing anywhere in the world.

For people whose exposure to psychology comes from popular books, magazines, TV, and the Internet, psychologists seem to analyze personality, offer counseling, and dispense child-rearing advice. Do they? Yes, and much more. Consider some of psychology’s questions, which perhaps have also been yours:

·  Have you ever found yourself reacting to something as one of your biological parents would—perhaps in a way you vowed you never would—and then wondered how much of your personality you inherited? To what extent do genes predispose our person-to-person personality differences? To what extent do home and community environments shape us?

·  Have you ever worried about how to act among people of a different culture, race, gender, or sexual orientation? In what ways are we alike as members of the human family? How do we differ?

·  Have you ever awakened from a nightmare and, with a wave of relief, wondered why you had such a crazy dream? How often, and why, do we dream?

·  Have you ever played peekaboo with a 6-month-old and wondered why the baby finds the game so delightful? The infant reacts as though, when you momentarily move behind a door, you actually disappear—only to reappear out of thin air. What do babies actually perceive and think?

·  Have you ever wondered what fosters school and work success? Are some people just born smarter? And does sheer intelligence explain why some people get richer, think more creatively, or relate more sensitively?

·  Have you ever wondered how the Internet, video games, and electronic social networks affect people? How do today’s electronic media influence how we think and how we relate?

·  Have you ever become depressed or anxious and wondered whether you’ll ever feel “normal”? What triggers our bad moods—and our good ones? What’s the line between a normal mood swing and a psychological disorder for which someone should seek help?

Psychology is a science that seeks to answer such questions.

Psychology’s Roots

1-1: What are some important milestones in psychology’s development?

To assist your active learning of psychology, Learning Objectives, framed as questions, appear at the beginning of major sections. You can test your understanding by trying to answer the question before, and then again after, you read the section.

To be human is to be curious about ourselves and the world around us. Before 300 B.C.E., the Greek naturalist and philosopher Aristotle theorized about learning and memory, motivation and emotion, perception and personality. Today we chuckle at some of his guesses, like his suggestion that the source of our personality is the heart. But credit Aristotle with asking the right questions.

Psychological Science Is Born

Information sources are cited in parentheses, with name and date. Every citation can be found in the end-of-book References, with complete documentation that follows American Psychological Association style.

Philosophers’ thinking about thinking continued until the birth of psychology on a December day in 1879, in a small, third-floor room at Germany’s University of Leipzig. There, two young men were helping an austere, middle-aged professor, Wilhelm Wundt, create an experimental apparatus. Their machine measured the time lag between people’s hearing a ball hit a platform and their pressing a telegraph key (Hunt, 1993). Curiously, people responded in about one-tenth of a second when asked to press the key as soon as the sound occurred—and in about two-tenths of a second when asked to press the key as soon as they were consciously aware of perceiving the sound. (To be aware of one’s awareness takes a little longer.) Wundt was seeking to measure “atoms of the mind”—the fastest and simplest mental processes. So began the first psychological laboratory, staffed by Wundt and by psychology’s first graduate students.

Before long, this new science of psychology became organized into different branches, or schools of thought, each promoted by pioneering thinkers. Two early schools were structuralism and functionalism. As physicists and chemists discerned the structure of matter, so Wundt’s student Edward Bradford Titchener aimed to discover the mind’s structure. He engaged people in self-reflective introspection (looking inward), training them to report elements of their experience as they looked at a rose, listened to a metronome, smelled a scent, or tasted a substance. What were their immediate sensations, their images, their feelings? And how did these relate to one another? Alas, introspection proved somewhat unreliable. It required smart, verbal people, and its results varied from person to person and experience to experience. As introspection waned, so did structuralism.

structuralism early school of thought promoted by Wundt and Titchener; used introspection to reveal the structure of the human mind.

functionalism early school of thought promoted by James and influenced by Darwin; explored how mental and behavioral processes function—how they enable the organism to adapt, survive, and flourish.

Throughout the text, important concepts are boldfaced. As you study, click on the terms for the definitions. You can also find these terms with their definitions in the Terms and Concepts to Remember section of the ebook.

Hoping to assemble the mind’s structure from simple elements was rather like trying to understand a car by examining its disconnected parts. Philosopher-psychologist William James thought it would be more fruitful to consider the evolved functions of our thoughts and feelings. Smelling is what the nose does; thinking is what the brain does. But why do the nose and brain do these things? Under the influence of evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin, James assumed that thinking, like smelling, developed because it was adaptive—it contributed to our ancestors’ survival. Consciousness serves a function. It enables us to consider our past, adjust to our present, and plan our future. As a functionalist, James encouraged explorations of down-to-earth emotions, memories, willpower, habits, and moment-to-moment streams of consciousness.

As these names illustrate, the early pioneers of most fields, including psychology, were predominantly men. In 1890, over the objections of Harvard’s president, James admitted Mary Whiton Calkins into his graduate seminar (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987). (In those years women lacked even the right to vote.) When Calkins joined, the other students (all men) dropped out. So James tutored her alone. Later, she finished all of Harvard’s Ph.D. requirements, outscoring all the male students on the qualifying exams. Alas, Harvard denied her the degree she had earned, offering her instead a degree from Radcliffe College, its undergraduate “sister” school for women. Calkins resisted the unequal treatment and refused the degree. She nevertheless went on to become a distinguished memory researcher and the American Psychological Association’s (APA’s) first female president in 1905.

The honor of being the first female psychology Ph.D. later fell to Margaret Floy Washburn, who also wrote an influential book, The Animal Mind, and became the APA’s second female president in 1921.

Study Tip: Memory research reveals a testing effect: We retain information much better if we actively retrieve it by self-testing and rehearsing. To bolster your learning and memory, take advantage of the Retrieve It opportunities you’ll find throughout this text.

Psychological Science Develops

In the field’s early days, many psychologists shared with the English essayist C. S. Lewis the view that “there is one thing, and only one in the whole universe which we know more about than we could learn from external observation.” That one thing, Lewis said, is ourselves: “We have, so to speak, inside information” (1960, pp. 18–19). Wundt and Titchener focused on inner sensations, images, and feelings. James engaged in introspective examination of the stream of consciousness and emotion. For these and other early pioneers, psychology was defined as “the science of mental life.”

And so it continued until the 1920s, when the first of two provocative American psychologists appeared on the scene. John B. Watson, and later B. F. Skinner, dismissed introspection and redefined psychology as “the scientific study of observable behavior.” You cannot observe a sensation, a feeling, or a thought, they said, but you can observe and record people’s behavior as they respond to different situations. Many agreed, and the behaviorists became one of psychology’s two major forces well into the 1960s.

behaviorism the view that psychology (1) should be an objective science that (2) studies behavior without reference to mental processes. Most research psychologists today agree with (1) but not with (2).

The other major force was Freudian psychology, which emphasized the ways our unconscious thought processes and our emotional responses to childhood experiences affect our behavior. (In chapters to come, we’ll look more closely at Sigmund Freud’s ideas.)

As the behaviorists had rejected the early 1900s definition of psychology, two other groups rejected the behaviorist definition in the 1960s. The first, the humanistic psychologists, led by Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, found both Freudian psychology and behaviorism too limiting. Rather than focusing on the meaning of early childhood memories or on the learning of conditioned responses, the humanistic psychologists drew attention to ways that current environmental influences can nurture or limit our growth potential, and the importance of having our needs for love and acceptance satisfied.

humanistic psychology historically significant perspective that emphasized the growth potential of healthy people.

The second group of psychologists pioneered the 1960s cognitive revolution, leading the field back to its early interest in mental processes. Cognitive psychology scientifically explores how we perceive, process, and remember information, and even why we can get anxious or depressed. Cognitive neuroscience, an interdisciplinary study, has enriched our understanding of the brain activity underlying mental activity.

cognitive neuroscience the interdisciplinary study of the brain activity linked with cognition (including perception, thinking, memory, and language).

To encompass psychology’s concern with observable behavior and with inner thoughts and feelings, today we define psychology as the science of behavior and mental processes. Let’s unpack this definition. Behavior is anything an organism does—any action we can observe and record. Yelling, smiling, blinking, sweating, talking, and questionnaire marking are all observable behaviors. Mental processes are the internal, subjective experiences we infer from behavior—sensations, perceptions, dreams, thoughts, beliefs, and feelings.

psychology the science of behavior and mental processes.

The key word in psychology’s definition is science. Psychology is less a set of findings than a way of asking and answering questions. My aim, then, is not merely to report results but also to show you how psychologists play their game. You will see how researchers evaluate conflicting opinions and ideas. And you will learn how all of us, whether scientists or simply curious people, can think smarter when describing and explaining the events of our lives.

Contemporary Psychology

This young science of psychology developed from the more established fields of philosophy and biology. Wundt was both a philosopher and a physiologist. Ivan Pavlov, who pioneered the study of learning (Chapter 7), was a Russian physiologist. Freud was an Austrian physician. Jean Piaget, the last century’s most influential observer of children, (Chapter 4), was a Swiss biologist. James was an American philosopher. This list of pioneering psychologists—“Magellans of the mind,” as Morton Hunt (1993) has called them—illustrates psychology’s origins in many disciplines and countries.

Like the pioneers, today’s psychologists are citizens of many lands. The International Union of Psychological Science has 71 member nations, from Albania to Zimbabwe. Psychology is growingand it is globalizing. The story of psychology is being written in many places, with interests ranging from nerve cell activity to international conflicts.

Psychology’s Biggest Question

1-2: What is psychology’s historic big issue?

Are our human traits present at birth, or do they develop through experience? The debate over this huge nature–nurture issue is ancient. The Greek philosopher Plato (428–348 B.C.E.) assumed that we inherit character and intelligence and that certain ideas are inborn. Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) countered that there is nothing in the mind that does not first come in from the external world through the senses.

nature-nurture issue the longstanding controversy over the relative contributions that genes and experience make to the development of psychological traits and behaviors. Today’s psychological science sees traits and behaviors arising from the interaction of nature and nurture.

More insight into nature’s influence on behavior arose after a 22-year-old seafaring voyager, Charles Darwin, pondered the incredible species variation he encountered, including tortoises on one island that differed from those on nearby islands. His 1859 On the Origin of Species explained this diversity by proposing the evolutionary process of natural selection: From among chance variations, nature selects traits that best enable an organism to survive and reproduce in a particular environment. Darwin’s principle of natural selection is still with us 150+ years later as biology’s organizing principle, and now an important principle for twenty-first-century psychology. This would surely have pleased Darwin, for he believed his theory explained not only animal structures (such as a polar bear’s white coat) but also animal behaviors (such as the emotional expressions associated with human lust and rage).

natural selection the principle that, among the range of inherited trait variations, those contributing to reproduction and survival will most likely be passed on to succeeding generations.

A nature-made nature–nurture experiment

The nature–nurture issue recurs throughout this text as today’s psychologists explore the relative contributions of biology and experience, asking, for example, how we humans are alike (because of our common biology and evolutionary history) and diverse (because of our differing environments). Are gender differences biologically predisposed or socially constructed? Is children’s grammar mostly innate or formed by experience? How are intelligence and personality differences influenced by heredity, and by environment? Are sexual behaviors more “pushed” by inner biology or “pulled” by external incentives? Should we treat psychological disorders—depression, for example—as disorders of the brain, disorders of thought, or both?

Over and over again we will see that in contemporary science the nature–nurture tension dissolves: Nurture works on what nature endows. Our species is biologically endowed with an enormous capacity to learn and adapt. Moreover, every psychological event (every thought, every emotion) is simultaneously a biological event. Thus, depression can be both a brain disorder and a thought disorder.

Psychology’s Three Main Levels of Analysis

1-3: What are psychology’s levels of analysis and related perspectives?

Each of us is a complex system that is part of a larger social system. But each of us is also composed of smaller systems, such as our nervous system and body organs, which are composed of still smaller systems—cells, molecules, and atoms.

These tiered systems suggest different levels of analysis, which offer complementary outlooks. It’s like explaining why grizzly bears hibernate. Is it because hibernation helped their ancestors to survive and reproduce? Because their inner physiology drives them to do so? Because cold environments hinder food gathering during winter? Such perspectives are complementary because “everything is related to everything else” (Brewer, 1996). Together, different levels of analysis form a biopsychosocial approach, which integrates biological, psychological, and social-cultural factors

levels of analysis the differing complementary views, from biological to psychological to social-cultural, for analyzing any given phenomenon.

biopsychosocial approach an integrated approach that incorporates biological, psychological, and social-cultural levels of analysis.

Each level provides a vantage point for viewing a behavior or mental process, yet each by itself is incomplete. Like different academic disciplines, psychology’s varied perspectives ask different questions and have their own limits. The different perspectives described in  TABLE 1.1 complement one another. Consider, for example, how they shed light on anger:

·  Someone working from a neuroscience perspective might study brain circuits that cause us to be “red in the face” and “hot under the collar.”

·  Someone working from the evolutionary perspective might analyze how anger facilitated the survival of our ancestors’ genes.

·  Someone working from the behavior genetics perspective might study how heredity and experience influence our individual differences in temperament.

·  Someone working from the psychodynamic perspective might view an outburst as an outlet for unconscious hostility.

·  Someone working from the behavioral perspective might attempt to determine which external stimuli trigger angry responses or aggressive acts.

·  Someone working from the cognitive perspective might study how our interpretation of a situation affects our anger and how our anger affects our thinking.

·  Someone working from the social-cultural perspective might explore how expressions of anger vary across cultural contexts.

The point to remember: Like two-dimensional views of a three-dimensional object, each of psychology’s perspectives is helpful. But each by itself fails to reveal the whole picture.

Table 1.1: Psychology’s Current Perspectives

Perspective Focus Sample Questions
Neuroscience How the body and brain enable emotions, memories, and sensory experiences How do pain messages travel from the hand to the brain? How is blood chemistry linked with moods and motives?
Evolutionary How the natural selection of traits has promoted the survival of genes How does evolution influence behavior tendencies?
Behavior genetics How our genes and our environment influence our individual differences To what extent are psychological traits such as intelligence, personality, sexual orientation,and vulnerability to depression products of our genes? Of our environment?
Psychodynamic How behavior springs from unconscious drives and conflicts How can someone’s personality traits and disorders be explained by unfulfilled wishes and childhood traumas?
Behavioral How we learn observable responses How do we learn to fear particular objects or situations? What is the most effective way to alter our behavior, say, to lose weight or stop smoking?
Cognitive How we encode, process, store, and retrieve information How do we use information in remembering? Reasoning? Solving problems?
Social-cultural How behavior and thinking vary across situations and cultures How are we alike as members of one human family? How do we differ as products of our environment?

Psychology’s Subfields

1-4: What are psychology’s main subfields?

Picturing a chemist at work, you probably envision a white-coated scientist surrounded by glassware and high-tech equipment. Picture a psychologist at work and you would be right to envision

·  a white-coated scientist probing a rat’s brain.

·  an intelligence researcher measuring how quickly an infant shows boredom by looking away from a familiar picture.

·  an executive evaluating a new “healthy life styles” training program for employees.

·  someone at a computer analyzing data on whether adopted teens’ temperaments more closely resemble those of their adoptive parents or their biological parents.

·  a therapist listening carefully to a client’s depressed thoughts.

·  a traveler visiting another culture and collecting data on variations in human values and behaviors.

·  a teacher or writer sharing the joy of psychology with others.

Psychology in court

The cluster of subfields we call psychology is a meeting ground for different disciplines. Thus, it’s a perfect home for those with wide-ranging interests. In its diverse activities, from biological experimentation to cultural comparisons, psychology is united by a common quest: describing and explaining behavior and the mind underlying it.

Some psychologists conduct basic research that builds psychology’s knowledge base. In the pages that follow we will meet a wide variety of such researchers, including biological psychologistsexploring the links between brain and mind; developmental psychologists studying our changing abilities from womb to tomb; cognitive psychologists experimenting with how we perceive, think, and solve problems; personality psychologists investigating our persistent traits; and social psychologists exploring how we view and affect one another.

basic research pure science that aims to increase the scientific knowledge base.

These and other psychologists also may conduct applied research, tackling practical problems. Industrial-organizational psychologists, for example, use psychology’s concepts and methods in the workplace to help organizations and companies select and train employees, boost morale and productivity, design products, and implement systems.

applied research scientific study that aims to solve practical problems.

Although most psychology textbooks focus on psychological science, psychology is also a helping profession devoted to such practical issues as how to have a happy marriage, how to overcome anxiety or depression, and how to raise thriving children. As a science, psychology at its best bases such interventions on evidence of effectivenessCounseling psychologists help people to cope with challenges and crises (including academic, vocational, and marital issues) and to improve their personal and social functioning. Clinical psychologists assess and treat mental, emotional, and behavior disorders. Both counseling and clinical psychologists administer and interpret tests, provide counseling and therapy, and sometimes conduct basic and applied research. By contrast, psychiatrists, who also may provide psychotherapy, are medical doctors licensed to prescribe drugs and otherwise treat physical causes of psychological disorders.

counseling psychology a branch of psychology that assists people with problems in living (often related to school, work, or relationships) and in achieving greater well-being.

clinical psychology a branch of psychology that studies, assesses, and treats people with psychological disorders.

psychiatry a branch of medicine dealing with psychological disorders; practiced by physicians who sometimes provide medical (for example, drug) treatments as well as psychological therapy.

To balance historic psychology’s focus on human problems, Martin Seligman and others (2002, 2005, 2011) have called for more research on human strengths and human flourishing. Their positive psychology scientifically explores “positive emotions, positive character traits, and enabling institutions.” What, they ask, can psychology contribute to a “good life” that engages one’s skills, and to a “meaningful life” that points beyond oneself?

positive psychology the scientific study of human functioning, with the goals of discovering and promoting strengths and virtues that help individuals and communities to thrive.

With perspectives ranging from the biological to the social, and with settings from the laboratory to the clinic, psychology relates to many fields. Psychologists teach not only in psychology departments, but also in medical schools, law schools, and theological seminaries, and they work in hospitals, factories, and corporate offices. They engage in interdisciplinary studies, such as psychohistory (the psychological analysis of historical characters), psycholinguistics (the study of language and thinking), and psychoceramics (the study of crackpots). 1

Psychology: A science and a profession

Psychology also influences culture. And psychology deepens our appreciation for how we humans perceive, think, feel, and act. By so doing it can indeed enrich our lives and enlarge our vision. Through this book I hope to help guide you toward that end. As educator Charles Eliot said a century ago: “Books are the quietest and most constant of friends, and the most patient of teachers.”

The Need for Psychological Science

Although in some ways we outsmart the smartest computers, our intuition often goes awry. To err is human. Enter psychological science. With its procedures for gathering and sifting evidence, science restrains error. As we familiarize ourselves with its strategies and incorporate its underlying principles into our daily thinking, we can think smarter. Psychologists use the science of behavior and mental processes to better understand why people think, feel, and act as they do.

What About Intuition and Common Sense?

1-5: How do hindsight bias, overconfidence, and the tendency to perceive order in random events illustrate why science-based answers are more valid than those based on intuition and common sense?

The limits of intuition

Some people suppose that psychology merely documents and dresses in jargon what people already know: “So what else is new—you get paid for using fancy methods to prove what my grandmother knew?” Others place their faith in human intuition. Former President George W. Bush described the feeling to journalist Bob Woodward (2002) in explaining his decision to launch the Iraq war: “I’m a gut player. I rely on my instincts.” Today’s psychological science does document a vast intuitive mind. As we will see, our thinking, memory, and attitudes operate on two levels—conscious and unconscious—with the larger part operating off-screen, automatically. Like jumbo jets, we fly mostly on autopilot.

So, are we smart to listen to the whispers of our inner wisdom, to simply trust “the force within”? Or should we more often be subjecting our intuitive hunches to skeptical scrutiny?

This much seems certain: We often underestimate intuition’s perils. My geographical intuition tells me that Reno is east of Los Angeles, that Rome is south of New York, that Atlanta is east of Detroit. But I am wrong, wrong, and wrong. As novelist Madeleine L’Engle observed, “The naked intellect is an extraordinarily inaccurate instrument” (1973). Three phenomena—hindsight bias, judgmental overconfidence, and our tendency to perceive patterns in random events—illustrate why we cannot rely solely on intuition and common sense.

“Those who trust in their own wits are fools.”

Proverbs 28:26

Did We Know It All Along? Hindsight Bias

Consider how easy it is to draw the bull’s eye after the arrow strikes. After the stock market drops, people say it was “due for a correction.” After the football game, we credit the coach if a “gutsy play” wins the game, and fault the coach for the “stupid play” if it doesn’t. After a war or an election, its outcome usually seems obvious. Although history may therefore seem like a series of inevitable events, the actual future is seldom foreseen. No one’s diary recorded, “Today the Hundred Years War began.”

This hindsight bias (also known as the I-knew-it-all-along phenomenon) is easy to demonstrate: Give half the members of a group some purported psychological finding, and give the other half an opposite result. Tell the first group, “Psychologists have found that separation weakens romantic attraction. As the saying goes, ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’” Ask them to imagine why this might be true. Most people can, and nearly all will then view this true finding as unsurprising.

hindsight bias the tendency to believe, after learning an outcome, that one would have foreseen it. (Also known as the I-knew-it-all-along phenomenon.)

“Life is lived forwards, but understood backwards.”

Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, 1813–1855

Tell the second group the opposite: “Psychologists have found that separation strengthens romantic attraction. As the saying goes, ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder.’” People given this untrue result can also easily imagine it, and most will also see it as unsurprising. When two opposite findings both seem like common sense, there is a problem.

Such errors in our recollections and explanations show why we need psychological research. Just asking people how and why they felt or acted as they did can sometimes be misleading—not because common sense is usually wrong, but because common sense more easily describes what has happened than what will happen.

“Anything seems commonplace, once explained.”

Dr. Watson to Sherlock Holmes

Nevertheless, Grandma’s intuition is often right. As Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by watching.” (We have Berra to thank for other gems, such as “Nobody ever comes here—it’s too crowded,” and “If the people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s gonna stop’em.”) Because we’re all behavior watchers, it would be surprising if many of psychology’s findings had not been foreseen. Many people believe that love breeds happiness, and they are right. Indeed, as Daniel Gilbert, Brett Pelham, and Douglas Krull (2003) have noted, “good ideas in psychology usually have an oddly familiar quality, and the moment we encounter them we feel certain that we once came close to thinking the same thing ourselves and simply failed to write it down.” Good ideas are like good inventions; once created, they seem obvious. (Why did it take so long for someone to invent suitcases on wheels and Post-it Notes?)

Hindsight bias

But sometimes Grandma’s intuition, informed by countless casual observations, has it wrong. In later chapters we will see how research has overturned popular ideas—that familiarity breeds contempt, that dreams predict the future, and that most of us use only 10 percent of our brain. We will also see how research has surprised us with discoveries about how the brain’s chemical messengers control our moods and memories, about other animals’ abilities, and about the effects of stress on our capacity to fight disease.

Overconfidence

We humans tend to think we know more than we do. Asked how sure we are of our answers to factual questions (Is Boston north or south of Paris?), we tend to be more confident than correct. 2 Or consider these three anagrams, which Richard Goranson (1978) asked people to unscramble:

WREAT → WATER

ETRYN → ENTRY

GRABE → BARGE

About how many seconds do you think it would have taken you to unscramble each of these? Knowing the answers tends to make us overconfident—surely the solution would take only 10 seconds or so? In reality, the average problem solver spends 3 minutes, as you also might, given a similar anagram without the solution: OCHSA. 3

Are we any better at predicting social behavior? Ohio State University psychologist Philip Tetlock (1998, 2005) collected more than 27,000 expert predictions of world events, such as the future of South Africa or whether Quebec would separate from Canada. His repeated finding: These predictions, which experts made with 80 percent confidence on average, were right less than 40 percent of the time. Nevertheless, even those who erred maintained their confidence by noting they were “almost right.” “The Québécois separatists almost won the secessionist referendum.”

Overconfidence in history:

“We don’t like their sound. Groups of guitars are on their way out.”

Decca Records, in turning down a recording contract with the Beatles in 1962

“Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.”

Popular Mechanics, 1949

“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”

General John Sedgwick, just before being killed during a U.S. Civil War battle, 1864

“The telephone may be appropriate for our American cousins, but not here, because we have an adequate supply of messenger boys.”

British expert group, evaluating the invention of the telephone

Perceiving Order in Random Events

In our natural eagerness to make sense of our world—what poet Wallace Stevens called our “rage for order”—we are prone to perceive patterns. People see a face on the moon, hear Satanic messages in music, or perceive the Virgin Mary’s image on a grilled cheese sandwich. Even in random data we often find order, because—here’s a curious fact of life—random sequences often don’t look random (Falk et al., 2009; Nickerson, 2002, 2005). In actual random sequences, patterns and streaks (such as repeating digits) occur

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