Michael Shermer’s recent TED presentation “The Pattern Behind Self-Deception” provides an excellent discussion on the weaknesses of human pattern detection. Shermer’s description of “patternicity” reminded me of our nation’s counterterrorism analysis immediately following the 9/11 attacks. I often joke that, “if you leave an intelligence analyst alone long enough, they’ll find Bin Laden in either Pakistan, the local mall or your basement depending on their pattern analysis.” In counterterrorism, we always find the pattern we are looking for- whether it’s there or not. This video should be required viewing for intelligence analysts, investigators and academics researching counterterrorism issues.
Here is a quick recap of Shermer’s key concepts.
Humans make two types of errors when attempting to identify patterns.
“Type I Error- False Positive- Believing a pattern is real when it is not (finding a nonexistent pattern)”
“Type II Error- False Negative- Not believing a pattern is real when it is (not recognizing a real pattern)”
“The tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise.”
Patternicity will occur:
“whenever the cost of making a Type I error (finding a nonexistent pattern) is less than the cost of making a Type II error (not recognizing a real pattern).”
Shermer explains how humans evolved into a default position of making Type I errors (to ensure survival) and thus tend to assume all perceived patterns are real.
Shermer’s “patternicity” lens describes the default fears of counterterrorism personnel between 2001 and about 2006. Post 9/11, investigators, analysts, and policymakers understood the high cost of a Type II error (in Shermer speak) and thus we assumed that all screen blips, chatter increases and tan male movements were indicators of terrorist attacks. Usually, these leads turned out to be dirt on screens, people talking excitedly about Middle Eastern soccer matches, and outdoor workers riding the bus to work (Type I errors). Unable to think our way through the terrorism problem, the U.S. fell back on a second physiological response to uncertainty: spending. I’ll follow up in a future post about counterterrorism spending. For now, I encourage all those in counterterrorism to watch Shermer’s talk. It’s been useful for me as I scan for ‘patterns’ amidst a sea of data.