Seeing Patterns Where There Ain’t Any: Winning Streaks


Monkeys also believe in winning streaks, study shows

Humans have a well-documented tendency to see winning and losing streaks in situations that, in fact, are random.  But scientists disagree about whether the “hot-hand bias” is a cultural artifact picked up in childhood or a predisposition deeply ingrained in the structure of our cognitive architecture.

Now in the first study in non-human primates of this systematic error in decision making, researchers find that monkeys also share our unfounded belief in winning and losing streaks. The results suggests that the penchant to see patterns that actually don’t exist may be inherited—an evolutionary adaptation that may have provided our ancestors a selective advantage when foraging for food in the wild…The [behavior] bias may be difficult to override even in situations that are truly random.
So why do monkeys and humans share this false belief in a run of luck even when faced over and over with evidence that the results are random?  The authors speculate that the distribution of food in the wild, which is not random, may be the culprit. “If you find a nice juicy beetle on the underside of a log, this is pretty good evidence that there might be a beetle in a similar location nearby, because beetles, like most food sources, tend to live near each other,” explained Hayden.

Evolution has also primed our brains to look for patterns “We have this incredible drive to see patterns in the world, and we also have this incredible drive to learn. I think it’s very related to why we like music, and why we like to do crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and things like that. If there’s a pattern there, we’re on top of it. And if there may or may not be a pattern there, that’s even more interesting.”

“If a belief in winning streaks is hardwired, then we may want to look for more rigorous retaining for individuals who cannot control their gambling. And investors should keep in mind that humans have an inherited bias to believe that if a stock goes up one day, it will continue to go up.”

“Biases in our decision-making mechanisms, like this bias towards belief in winning and losing streaks, say something really deep about what sorts of creatures we are. We often like to think we make decisions based only on the information we’re conscious of. But we’re not always aware of why we make certain decisions or believe certain things.”

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