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Clustering Illusion – How Superstitions Fool The Best People

Clustering Illusion – How Superstitions Fool The Best People


Can you find the logic behind the sequence? You have 3 minutes. Get, set, go.

Did you find the logic? Even if you could not nail it down to the exact answer, you did find some pattern, didn’t you?

Would you not be surprised to know the sequence is purely random? A study conducted used the same sequence. The subjects had to find out if the above sequence was a streak for a basketball shooting. Over 62% of the subjects believed the pattern was a streak.

In reality, the sequence was random.

Another example, if you peek out of your window, can you see any clouds in the sky? Can you tell me how does the cloud look like?

Does it look like a camel, a kite, a group of children or anything else? If you cannot spot any clouds today, you must have spotted a cloud before which looked exactly like some object or a thing.

These are examples of a clustering illusion. The funny trick played by the Impractical Jokers works as an experiment in itself.

I am writing a set of posts to help you identify how your brain plays games with you. The fourth article on this topic is Clustering Illusion. You can read about all the biases of the mind by clicking here.

What is the clustering illusion?

Clustering illusion

Clustering illusion is a flaw of the human mind where we find patterns in random information when no pattern exists. Our brain has been designed to identify patterns to make better decisions.

In psychology, this definition explains one of the many flaws our brain has. Psychologists also call it the illusion of validity.

We can identify the pattern in a Fibonacci series – 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, ….

We can identify the pattern in the arrival of the Halleys comet.

We can identify the pattern on a skirt with polka dots.

But guess what do we do when no patterns exist? Our brain simply creates one.

We see patterns that do not exist. We see a streak when none exists. We see shapes and symbols in a pile of irregular and random data.

Our brain has a hard time accepting that the information is random. The behavior gains more prominence when we have a small amount of data. The lack of data prompts us to think we have the ability of a clairvoyant wizard who can predict the future.

Examples of clustering illusion:

Some of the past examples in history involve finding patterns and shapes which made worldwide news. People still believe some of these examples were real and not random.

1. The Virgin Mary Bread

We have heard the story before. For those who haven’t, a woman claimed, her 10-year-old sandwich had the face of the Virgin Mary.

The bread finally sold on eBay for a massive 28,000 $. A lot of people still believe this was a case of a divine sighting.

Devotees have reported similar cases around the world where they notice shapes of Jesus Christ, The Buddha or other sacred people.

People all over the world eat bread daily. Due to vast usage, some bread or the other will form a familiar shape. In this case, because the shape had an association with God, the news spread like wildfire. Had the bread taken the shape of a cute dog, no one would care.

2. Voices of a song in reverse

Reverse song illusion

People associate many metal bands to the satan. The reason: A person found a satanic message while playing their song in reverse.

In fact, a lot of articles on the internet list the most satanic songs in reverse. Here is one of them.

In spite of the bands clarifying they did not hide any satanic message in reverse, people assume the band is lying.

3. Rocks in space

Some of the rocks found on the moon apparently had the shapes of objects on earth. Some people went ahead to speculate that life existed on the moon before some catastrophe wiped it off.

After a few months, the same rocks had changed shape nullifying all claims.

4. Bombing/crime location or date patterns

Bombing pattern

We see these scenarios often in the movies. A sneaky thief with a lot of swag commits one robbery after another. The cops manage to plot his robbery locations on the map and identify the pattern of his robbery location and date.

Based on the pattern, the cops manage to hunt down the robber by predicting the location and date of his next plan.

As stupid as the concept sounds, you know what is funny? The same happened in real life during World War 2. The Germans were on a bombing spree. In a span of a few months, the Germans had bombed over 9000 locations out of which about 2500 were near London.

The British believed the bombing followed a pattern and found a mathematical pattern behind the bombing. They even went on to declare certain areas as high risk and some areas as safe.

In reality, the Germans dropped bombs wherever they felt like.

5. Nostradamus predictions

Every time we have a doomsday rumor running, one of Nostradamus’ prediction has to take the limelight. Nostradamus is believed to have predicted the death of Henry II, the Great Fire of London, the French Revolution, Napolean’s conquest and what not.

The truth is, Nostradamus had written pages of such generic gibberish. If you are hell-bent on connecting that gibberish with an incident after it has occurred, you will find a link. The world is a huge place and over a period of hundreds of years, a billion events occur. You can find some correlation between some generic writing of Nostradamus and an event of the past.

Never has a Nostradamus prediction come true when it was linked to an event before it occurred. All Nostradamus predictions are associated with an event after they occur. As per Nostradamus, the world should have ended a few times already.

If you wrote some random predictions with generic words, 500 years later, people will manage to associate them with a real-life event. If you want to be a Nostradamus, you can be one right now by writing vague predictions. Unfortunately, you will not remain alive to watch your fame when people associate your predictions with some event.

As humans, we are so obsessed with patterns. We easily create one where nothing exists. We have a strong aversion to accepting that the data is random.

How Clustering illusion effects you

From the surface, the clustering illusion seems like a cognitive bias you never fall victim to. However, in real life, you fall victim to the bias far often than you think. You and I are no different than an arrogant teenager who believes he has the answers to all the problems of the world.

1. Stock Market Predictions

stock prediction clustering illusion

Analysts love graphs and so do we. Based on various line graphs and candlesticks, analysts predict the rise of a stock, the fall of the index or the next market crash. When so many people predict every day, some turn right based on chance. However, we believe the analyst did some amazing research to predict the outcome.

We believe the analyst had the ability to predict like Octopus Paul who predicted most of the results of a Football World Cup. A ton of people have lost huge amounts of money by believing such patterns.

Not all the graphs used are useless, but people tend to believe random patterns from meaningless graphs more than the real graphs.

2. A new business idea

Business idea

You have heard about the billionaires who found an amazing idea. Clustering illusion in business ideas is one area you are highly vulnerable to. You have a similar idea and the data seems to back the fact that the idea will succeed.

You must be aware that since you believe in the idea, the data seems to fit in magically. Is it not possible that you already believe so much in the idea’s success that you look at only the favorable data?

You convince your mind to ignore the negative data as an exception. Your mind might find patterns based on favorable data alone.

A smart person looks at all the data with a neutral mindset.

It sure sounds easy. But convincing yourself to consider the real information which goes against your idea is not easy at all.

3. Predicting a lottery

People who buy lottery tickets believe there exists a pattern. Some people carefully calculate the numbers they bet on and believe they can crack the code someday. The bad news – they keep waiting forever.

However, people have managed to predict the lottery numbers based on feeding over 10 years of data to a Machine Learning algorithm. These predictions were based on cracking the algorithm behind the pattern. Not only is it humanly impossible to do a similar prediction, but also a good lottery system introduces enough randomness to break such predictions.

4. Your lucky outfit

Feeling lucky

You have a lucky outfit that you wear to interviews, presentations and other important events. You believe the outfits influences the results in your favor. You fail to consider other outfits that have delivered favorable results and the cases where your favorite outfit failed.

You associate success to the outfit and mentally wipe out the cases where it failed. On similar lines, you might also have Terrible Tuesdays, Wonderful Wednesdays or a Fantastic Number 5.

5. Compatible Partner

Partner compatiblity

Every time you meet a new interesting person, you find the person exciting. You believe “this time it is different because we have so much in common.” Both of you like the same kind of movies, the same dessert and intend to visit the same countries around the world. How could that be a coincidence?

I hate to share the bad news. If you consider a person you hate, you will find similarities too. You like a bazillion different things and so does every other random person on earth. If you pair two people together, some common interests will occur.

6. Gambling and Casinos


Go to a casino and check how people analyze the results of the previous rounds. Whether it is a roulette table, slot machines or craps, people bet based on their mental calculations of previous results.

Trust me, if there existed a pattern, the casino folks would crack it before you. The odds in a casino are stacked against you, no matter how much you believe in your fortune-telling abilities. If not, the casino would go out of business.

Variations of this bias called Gamblers Fallacy and the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy also influence decisions in gambling.

7. Horoscope and astrology


Do you read the horoscope in the newspaper and wonder how accurate the prediction was? On some days you read the horoscope at the end of the day just to verify if the prediction came true. Your jaw drops open when the description turns out a close match.

Try this experiment. Ask your friend to cut out the horoscope for all 12 Zodiac signs and give them to you. The catch is, you cannot know in advance which Zodiac sign the horoscope belongs to. You must read all 12 of them and identify which one was yours.

I can guarantee you that you will not get it right. At least not more than once. The secret behind horoscope is to write a generic description which matches for most people.

When you read a paragraph where some of the generic content matches with your day, you ignore the misses. You focus on what matched and assume the whole content turned out accurate.

Read one of the lines from the horoscope. “You are tough but fair. Sometimes you lose your temper, but you always do what you think is right.”

Does it match your personality? Sure it does. Because it matches for over 90% of the people. Horoscope is the most classic example of clustering illusion in effect.

How to counter clustering illusion?

The clustering illusion is easier to overcome compared to the other flaws of the mind. We identify patterns when we are adamant about finding one. So the simplest solution lies in not try too hard or breaking your head. Do not be like the criminal who commits a crime for no benefit but just to look cool.

1. Get more data

Random patterns seem apparent when you have a small set of data. You have to accept that little data is only little data. Either find more data or do not make predictions without enough data.

2. Do not attribute a lot of importance to small data

When you make a prediction based on a small amount of information know that the chances of making a mistake are high. As much as possible avoid predicting with small amounts of data unless really necessary. Often, no decision is better than a wrong decision.

3. Be doubtful

Approach decisions with a fair amount of skepticism. Ask yourself questions and do not convince yourself unless you have compelling proof or at least good enough data points.

At the same time, do not doubt too much. In most cases, you will not have enough evidence to make a certain decision. Find the right balance between being delusional like seeing aliens and doubting too much like an insecure husband.

4. Perform small experiments

If you have a hunch that seems right, test it such that the consequences are not massive. For example, if you want to buy a stock based on graphs you have analyzed, then buy in small values. Until you confirm that your learning and prediction is right, do not play with big money.

Awareness of the clustering illusion effect helps you identify your mistakes of going deep into patterns. Since this flaw is easy to spot, if you are careful enough, you can easily avoid the mistakes you make.

Do not try to find patterns in every damn thing. Because chances are, there are none.

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