For many people, the beginning of 2016 was marked by David Bowie’s untimely death. Whilst this in itself was sad, the nation’s mood was again rocked by the death of actor Alan Rickman, also in January and of the singer Prince in April. These three deaths drew many headlines asking if 2016 was the worst year ever for celebrity deaths. Whilst we clearly mourn the passing of these three eminent, highly talented individuals, what was it about them that caused such an outpouring of sombre reflection? There have been plenty of other celebrity deaths in 2016 including Caroline Aherne, Victoria Wood, Muhammad Ali, Ronnie Corbett, Gene Wilder and Leonard Cohen. Yet somehow the same tone of astonishment of the timing of the deaths was not reflected in our national psyche, or perhaps more accurately, the media. One reason for this is due to the way in which we as humans are programmed to identify patterns in the world around us. We need to be able to quickly and easily make sense of our environment if we are to be able to operate in it without agonising over every decision. Some have even claimed1https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/patternicity-finding-meaningful-patterns/ that there is an evolutionary advantage in this – if our forebears mistook a rustling in the grass as the noise made by a prowling lion then there is little downside to erring on the cautious side. Those who weren’t alert didn’t live long enough to have children. The number three is relevant to this because it is the lowest figure that can be used to form patterns in our mind. The first case of something happening is typically thought of as chance, whilst the second case can be considered a coincidence. But the third instance is the lowest point at which we can consider there to be a pattern, and as such our minds pounce on it. Just as at school we are taught that the way to draw a parallel line is to use three measurements not two (as with the latter we can easily make a mistake). As such, the number three looms large in our culture, storytelling, religion and speech. Think three musketeers; the three amigos; the three wise men; red white and blue; three blind mice; heaven, earth and hell; three little pigs; the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost; veni, vidi, vici. I could go on. There is plenty of evidence that this is not merely a Western phenomenon. Chinese tradition considers three a lucky number, with numerous proverbs extolling its virtue. For example, Confucius said: ‘Three people are walking together; at least one of them is good enough to be my teacher.’ The wider point here is that we humans love patterns. Whilst our inclination for ‘patternicity’ clearly has advantages, particularly when avoiding hungry lions, perhaps there are downsides. When looking at a truly random sequence we tend to think there are patterns in the data because it somehow looks too ordered or ‘lumpy’. Psychologist Thomas Gilovich2https://www.amazon.co.uk/How-Know-What-isnt-Fallibility/dp/0029117062 points out that when we throw a coin twenty times there is a 50% chance of getting four heads in a row, a 25% chance of five in a row, and a 10% chance of a run of six. But if you give this sequence to most individuals they will consider that these are patterns in the data and not at all random. This explains the ‘hot hand’ fallacy in which we think we are on a winning streak – in whatever that may be, from cards to basketball to football. In each of these areas, where the data is random but happens to include a sequence, we massively over-interpret the importance of this pattern. Our inclination to seek out patterns in data perhaps explains why we view certain numbers, such as three, as having particular significance for us. Indeed, there is a whole belief system of numerology3https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Numerology where a divine relationship is considered to exist between a number and coinciding events. But for the more scientifically-minded amongst us, our willingness to imbue three celebrity deaths with significance is perhaps a function of our very human tendencies, rather than a form of celestial significance. Understanding the way our brain works in spotting patterns is of course more important than ever as we try and make sense of the ever growing array of data available to us about consumer behaviour. Pattern spotting is a great skill but our human pitfalls need to be understood and corrected if we are to be able to pull out signals from the huge amount of noise that we need to process in order to make effective decisions.
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