If you ever played on an old school Nintendo system, you might swear that blowing air into a malfunctioning game cartridge could get it working again. The tactic wouldn’t work every time, but eventually persistence would pay off and you could get back to gaming. In fact, blowing into a game cartridge did nothing at all*.
“Our brains are nature’s most powerful pattern recognition devices,” says Dr. Joe Hanson in his latest video on his YouTube channel It’s Okay To Be Smart, and a tendency to find patterns in everything is why the old Nintendo hack seemed to work. Hanson explains that pattern recognition is fundamental to our survival, yet it can get us into trouble. Watch his fantastic primer on these psychological quirks below:
Hyperactive pattern recognition was incredibly useful to our ancestors—it was literally the difference between life and death. Was that a breeze in the tall grass or a stalking tiger? But today, this overactive pattern recognition gets us into trouble, or at least gets us believing in some pretty odd things. When given random data, we swear there is a face on Mars, a link between vaccines and autism (thoroughly debunked), and that a full moon leads to increases in crime and violence. In reality, we are just biased primates swiping in the darkness of a complicated world.
Hanson mentions three persistent cognitive biases that lead us to these errors. When we pay attention to supporting evidence and ignore or discredit evidence that does not support our beliefs, the confirmation bias is at play. It’s easy to think that you and your friend have a mystical connection when you remember all the times you called each other at the same time and forget or don’t notice the millions of time you did not.
The Texas sharpshooter fallacy is another bias that haunts our cognition. As Hanson points out, it’s easy to make something look like a pattern when you are also drawing the target. For example, when a supposed psychic makes a big deal out of the few “hits” he or she had made over the course of a career it appears impressive. Of course, this ignores the hundreds or thousands of incorrect predictions over the same period.
Lastly, the post hoc fallacy is why at least a few minutes of our childhoods have been collectively spent blowing into Nintendo cartridges. It’s natural to assume that when one event directly follows another the first event caused the second—the assumption turns out to be correct a lot of the time. But when things get more complicated, more variables are present and it’s much harder to say one event directly caused another simply because of their ordering in time. The brain often ignores these complications, but you don’t have to.
Science was invented, has spread so far, and continues to be so successful precisely because its method tries to eliminate cognitive bias. Blinding and controls and placebos and peer review try to combat bias in order to better see the world for what it is. If you went back in time and started a tally counting how often a wonky Nintendo cartridge worked on its own without blowing on it at all versus blowing into it, the numbers would likely come out as random chance. Randomness is cognitively stressful. Causality—blowing into a cartridge and hoping for the best—is comforting.
Knowing about the cognitive biases that steer our thinking is a start, but the problem has deep roots, which is why videos like Hanson’s are important. I can’t tell you with a straight face that I won’t try blowing into a game cartridge again.
*UPDATE: A former Nintendo support employee has informed Nerdist that there is actually something to this folk myth. In fact, blowing into a malfunctioning cartridge may help by increasing the conductivity between the cartridge’s connectors and the console. However, Nintendo discouraged this because the moisture from repeated blowing would eventually corrode the connectors, making the situation even worse. Even so, in most situations, any success was probably random.
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