Synchronicity and confirmation bias – a difference

And now for something completely different.

The concept of synchronicity is quite simple – it is a subjective feeling that two events are meaningfully related. For example, I look for information on problem A, then in my spare time I listen to an overdue issue of a biotech podcast that happens to have guests from a virology podcast, which I then decide to check out, and I find out that a new episode of this second podcast has the answer to my problem A in it. Amazing synchronicity – I found a solution for a problem not looking for it, and in a place that I would have not expected it. It feels meaningful for me, and gives me a lot of joy. Another example – I talk about effects of sword cuts with friends, and then suddenly a person from another side of the globe who is not involved in this discussion sends me on Facebook his pictures of the test-cutting that he did this day, and that illustrate precisely the point I was trying to make in a discussion. Wow! What are the odds of that?

However, from an objective standpoint synchronicity is simply a coincidence. Regardless of how meaningful this event is for me, for other people there is no such connection. Unless they share my belief system, or I manage to convince them otherwise. But in general, people not involved in solving problem A will look at the virology podcast, they will not get butterflies in their belly, and will say that there is nothing unusual about it. And from their perspective they are right.

Synchronicities, when they happen, really do add meaning to our lives, and push us into the state of mind closer to “being in the zone”. That is if we allow them to do it. They might create an impression, that there is an invisible hand that guides our destiny, and lead us forward, making the life easier and lighter. Why not use this to our advantage? Life without synchronicities is tiresome, boring, and gray. Synchronicity provides me with a moment of awe and wonder, in which I can immerse myself, take a deep breath, and appreciate life more. Screw objectivism, this feels good! And it makes a great story as well! (Which is probably why it feels this way, but it’s another matter entirely).

But then, don’t overdo it. If you start actively looking for synchronicities, then you are actually employing a strategy to find meaning, where there is none. This strategy is called confirmation bias. You know there is a meaning, and you are simply looking for signs to confirm your preconceived idea. What you find can give you peace of mind (or sometimes a headache, if you happen to find something you weren’t looking for), but in the end you are only deluding yourself, and chasing dreams and shadows of meaning, not the real meaning itself. Stop. Cease and desist.

The trick is not to be too active but observant and open to new experiences, and surprises. Synchronicities do happen. But their only magic is in our heads. Embrace the magical moment of inner realization, and don’t make the mistake of trying to enter the same river twice. This is not going to happen. Move on, wait for another day and another miracle.

Life happens to be beautiful. From one synchronicity to the next.

Human heuristics

Some argue, that we should live our lifes in a rational way, calmly and dispassionately analyzing pros and cons of each situation. While perhaps this is a noble ideal, it is also impossible to attain, and even those people who advocate such way of life are subject to a few quirks and limitations of our minds and brains.

Here are a few important examples that each of us should remember:

  1. It is very hard, if not impossible, to separate our thinking about things into risk and benefit. The general rule of thumb that we employ is that when we consider something to be beneficial, we tend to undervalue the risks associated with it, either ignoring them, diminishing or rationalizing, and vice versa. If a thing can be both beneficial and risky (like nuclear energy for example), it proves to be a hard issue for us to swallow, and analyze.  Perhaps many emotions are the result of this conflict that we consciously or unconsciously perceive.
  2. We have a bias for novelty. New things are inherently more interesting than the old, common, and known ones. In this day and age this imperfection is really starting to become a hindrance, and getting caught in the endless cycle of news is so easy with our smartphones, tablets, RSS readers and such. Heck, I often can’t even finish reading one book not thinking about all others that stand on the shelves around.
  3. Also, a similar variation of previous bias is the one for uncommonality – if a thing is rare, it catches our attention much quicker, than if it is common. Media are a good example on the manifestation of this rule. In connection to our inability of assessing risks and understanding big numbers, it proves a real challenge to obtain a view on reality that is… well… as close to “real” as possible.
  4. We have a bias for finding patterns, even if there are none. Which is totally understandable, but it makes our lifes more difficult if we want to actually know what is true, and what isn’t. It’s even worse when we are looking for an invisible agent in places, where there doesn’t have to be one. It might be fun (or scary), it makes a great story (and we are suckers for good stories, I tell you), but it “ain’t exactly real”, as one famous singer put it.
  5. Confirmation bias plays well into the bias for searching patterns. Once we think up of a possible pattern, it is easier and more “natural” to look for the evidences proving our idea, than to come up with those that disprove it. Reading a balanced article can actually increase our bias, instead of reducing it. It takes a lot of courage to think about possibility of myself being wrong.
  6. Anchoring. Our brain focuses on the first thing that comes to its attention, and uses it for future reasoning, even if the thing has nothing to do with the problem at hand. It is a great feature helping us to process complex problems, and to arrive at conclusions in some sort of sensible time, but in a distracting environment, such conclusions can be totally unwarranted. And we fall for anchoring each and every time – there is no way to defend from it, even if we try to compensate for it! Beware of marketers that ask you seemingly innocen questions at the beginning of your conversation, especially any numbers. It is a trap. Run like hell! :)

What’s good about it all is that we slowly start to understand the role that emotions play in our decision making, and shaping our view of the world. They are crucial, cannot, and should not be eliminated – they are what makes us going through life. But at the same time, it is vital to be aware of one’s weak and blind spots. Because we all do have them in abundance.