Business Building Community

Business Building Community

tightropeThom Ruhe capped off this morning’s 1 Million Cups (congrats on the brand new site going live!) 1st birthday event with some thoughtful comments.  One sentence especially struck me: “I think community is becoming a form of currency in our economy.”  I responded, via Twitter, “Always has been, we just see it now.”

I’m still thinking about his remarks.  He touched on a point that’s dear to me and — I’ve discovered after living in the Kansas City Startup world for the past year-and-a-half or so — many (if not most) entrepreneurs.  The point is simple: human relationships are everything.

Most of us have to do something to make a living.  Most of us spend the largest chunk of our waking hours doing work of some kind.  There are easier, safer ways to make a living than becoming an entrepreneur.  If we don’t realize it beforehand, we soon figure out that there is no balance in starting a company.  We eat and breathe our companies’ every waking moment.  Our companies invade our dreams — or nightmares.  Our families and friends have to come along for the ride, and it is a wild roller coaster of triumphs and tragedies.

Despite all that, millions of us around the planet, everyday, make the leap into this uncharted land.  If the projections are correct (and I think they are), those numbers will only increase as we all witness the greatest reshaping of the workforce since the Industrial Revolution.

For well over  hundred years, during the fires of the Industrial Revolution, our human experience was reshaped as the developed world became increasingly urbanized.  People moved into cites to take advantage of more secure factory careers transcending the capricious whims of agrarian life.  Beginning in the late 1950s, Levittown clones encircled our cities, pushing outward, creating more suburbs (until a new word, “exurb,” had to be coined).  In 2008, for the first time in human history, more of us worldwide lived in cities and towns than in the countryside.

For all of the 20th century, cultural commentators worried about the ways in which, even as we moved physically closer, we were dissolving the bonds of community that held us together with tradition and a sense of shared fate.  Those forces are still at work in our world, leaving us alone together in crowds.

But for the past two decades, with the rise of the web and mobile, something curious also happened.  What have we actually done with this powerful information technology that more of us now carry in our pockets (80% of the world has a mobile subscription and more than 40% of the developed world now carries a smartphone)?

We’ve built social networks, connecting those we’ve known all our lives along with those we’ll never meet in person.  We use those networks as rumor mill and information highway.  We share support in times of need and flame out over tiny provocation.  We share humor and tragedy and boring life details.  News travels the world with a click in the space of a heartbeat.  In short, we do everything with digital technology that we’ve done on front porches, at potluck dinners, and around campfires — but we’ve expanded the community to the biggest small town we can imagine.

There’s been no overarching plan, but we’ve turned each new technical development toward feeding our needs as very social animals.  We’ve used our technology to re-imagine the traditional small town on a grand, global scale.  And we’ve used those technologies to augment, not replace, our face-to-face connections.

Starting a business can seem pretty lonely.  It often feels like you’re out on a wire with no net.  It is exhilarating and terrifying.  But once you’ve been bitten by the bug, it’s difficult to imagine life any other way.  Why?

It’s not riches.  Most of us won’t get wealthy.  It’s not glory.  Most of us will fail (although many of us will “fail forward” and carry those lessons into the next venture).  It’s not control.  We know, as the “boss,” that if it’s going to get done, then that responsibility falls to us — and we answer to everyone.  It’s not for leisure.  I can’t tell you the last time I took a vacation, nor can I predict when my next one will be (and that’s OK, because I truly love what I do).

I think, more than anything else, we become entrepreneurs because we see the possibility to make a meaningful difference in the world.  Markets are the mechanism our world provides us to propose a new possibility and see who will join us.  Whether it’s a hot dog stand or a tech startup, if we do it well, we provide value for enough people that we can support ourselves, our families and pay something forward to the communities who made our experiments possible.

I became a Sociologist because I believe in community and I think we can choose to help make the world a better place.  I became an entrepreneur for that same reason.  And I, for one, remain grateful for programs like the Kauffman Foundation’s 1 Million Cups — among the many, growing efforts here in Kansas City’s vibrant startup community — that help all of us connect with others pursuing our unique versions of this crazy dream.  They help us see that we are far from crazy and far from alone.  We’re very human and very together.

@KauffmanFDN @ThomRuhe @1millioncups #entrepreneur #community

Think like a Social Scientist

Think like a Social Scientist

I encourage everyone to think like a social scientist. Not all the time — that would be exhausting and you’d probably be accused of being a “creepy, monomaniacal over-analyzer” — but you should think like a social scientist when it matters. Why?

Because you’ll be more likely to make better decisions.

Thinking like a scientist means caring more about understanding the world as it is than justifying why it must be as you suppose. Too often, we engage in mental gymnastics to make the world appear as we wish it to be. But the world doesn’t care. When we’re wrong, eventually the world will show us.

It means developing your awareness of the world and the people around you, as well as of yourself. It is a path toward mindfulness and it strengthens your skills at real pattern recognition.

Bring out your inner scientist.
Bring out your inner scientist.

It cultivates your critical observer. It’s easy to be critical of others you don’t like or agree with, but we need to learn to be positively critical of ourselves and others. What does that mean? It means becoming aware of the judgments we make and understanding why we make them. It means, when we agree or approve, we understand why. It also means, when we disagree or disapprove, we also understand why — and we offer a positive alternative to the conversation.

Thinking like a social scientist means understanding our social and cognitive biases. We all have blinders and shortcuts due to our experience or our habits of mind. They are inevitable, but we can become more understanding of the ways they lead us astray.

Most of the time people focus on the “what.” The “what” is the foundation of our knowledge. But social scientists press on to look for the “why” and the “how.” “Why” and “how” are powerful questions: their answers allow us to make better plans and put them into action.

It encourages us to focus on reason and evidence. We believe what we believe for a lot of reasons — most of them are quick and easy, some of them are even effective, but important decisions should be grounded on the best available standards.

There are may more reasons why we should all think like a social scientist more often than we do. But this seems like a good list to get us started. We all start out with the curious, scientific inclination as kids. We can revive that sense of wonder and direct it toward our own lives. How would your life and career be better if you cultivated your inner social scientist?



What is Attention?
Attention is the focus of our mental resources on some information, while filtering out other information. Attention is crucial to everything from better decisions to better relationships, yet everything about us — our bodies, minds, cultures, and societies — encourages us to pay as little attention as possible. Attention is a gateway: if we don’t apply it, we cannot accurately reason or feel or decide since we don’t have the necessary information to process.

Imagine yourself standing in the doorway of your home on a dark night with one of those fancy, adjustable flashlights. You can shine it inside your home or outside into the street. You can adjust the beam to a tight, bright focus on one object or a broad, soft glow over your field of vision. After a while, the batteries begin to run down and the illumination is not quite as bright. You begin to lose detail.

Attention is our light in a dark world.
Attention is our light in a dark world.

Imagine that you can swap your big flashlight out for two or three smaller models that, together, produce the same illumination that you can differently focus at the same time. Fewer details are illuminated by each and it’s a challenge to maintain your focus with them all.

Finally, imagine the flashlight has a mind of its own. It’s prone to scanning your environment for movements or bright, shiny flashes. Sometimes it does what you want, but other times it’s frustrating and uncooperative. It seems like it wants to point anywhere but where you need.

Together, that’s a pretty fair analogy for our attentional system. Attention is a resource: we only have so much to go around at one time. Attention is like a muscle: it can be improved, up to our individual capacities, through conscious practice and by resting and “recharging” our batteries. We are not nearly as in control of our attention as we would like to think.

Problems with Attention
We have certain biases that are difficult to control and don’t always draw our attention where it needs to be.

  • For one example, we tend to to be drawn toward objects that contrast with other objects in our perceptual field (“salience”). If it’s bright, shiny, or different, it tends to draw our attention. Because we notice these things, we tend to think they’re more important than they may really be and miss what’s truly necessary.
  • For another, we pay more attention to threatening or otherwise negative stimuli (“automatic vigilance”). If something fails to meet your expectations, we also see it as negative and pay more attention to it. We all like gossip more than we admit, we slow down to see car wrecks at the side of the road, we notice flubs and bloopers in an otherwise perfect presentation. Our attention is less attuned to focusing on the good and so our inputs are unbalanced (and our conclusions become biased).
  • And for a third, we run on autopilot most of the time (“habituation”). If we can avoid paying attention, then we will. This is why, for example, more car accidents happen within a few miles of your home (even after controlling for frequency of travel): we’ve done it so many times that we gradually pay less attention on familiar ground. We only snap out of it when something different happens — and that something different is often negative, like an obstacle in the street or a car darting through a stop sign. By then, it’s too late.

Left to their own devices, our perceptions are generally a lousy guide to directing our attention. But attention is a renewable resource and a resource we can learn to use better.

How to Pay Attention
Cultivate paying full attention: really look, really hear, really engage with the person or project at hand. It’s not easy — our environment continually conditions us to divide attention and attempt to multi-task. When your attention wanders (and it will), give it a moment. Acknowledge your distraction, refrain from beating yourself up, and return your focus where it needs to be. Become conscious of where your attention is focused and practice directing it. Beyond awareness and practice, there are other things we can do to tame our wandering attention.

  • Our minds live in our bodies. When our bodies have adequate resources, our minds function better:
    quality sleep, nutritious food, reduced stress and regular physical and mental exercise all help keep your body satisfied (so that it isn’t the source of distraction) and optimize your available resources (like attention).
  • Order your environment — make it easy to attend. If your tools are where you expect, you don’t have to pay attention to finding them so you can focus on the task itself. Ordering your environment also means making it functionally appropriate. Ask yourself, “what do I need to do in this space?” Walk through the best ways to accomplish those tasks and arrange the space for your activity flow. This also applies to non-work space: arrange a den or living room for leisure, arrange a bedroom for sleep (so ditch the bedroom TV). Your spaces should be comfortable, but not so comfortable that they induce sleep (unless that’s the purpose).
  • Reduce distractions from irrelevant, extraneous factors and increase ease and control on task. Remove mental, electronic and physical distractions. If you’re easily prone to being distracted by negative thoughts, try having a positive alternative ready. By having an affirmative option to easily turn to, you can effectively short-circuit a negative attention spiral and re-direct it to something manageable — then return your focus to the task at hand.
  • Slow down — we need down time to recharge our energy and our mental resources. Take breaks — we need time between tasks to recover and re-orient ourselves to the new task. Chunk tasks (break them into manageable bits), but don’t structure everything. Too much structure becomes its own tyranny and a powerful distraction as you become preoccupied with keeping to it. And allow time for fun and reflection. We’re not machines. We don’t live to work. Time well-spent “off task” is its own nourishment.
  • Alternate tasks — novelty revives attention. Break tasks into manageable chunks with clear signs of progress. Work to that milestone (which reinforces your sense of personal success) and then switch to another task for a while. Don’t try to multi-task complex activities, but switch tasks with a purpose. Learn to recognize when you’ve reached the point of diminishing marginal returns. You can come back to the original task when you’re recharged.
  • Do something — our attention is fickle and fills empty spaces with idle distractions. Humans crave activity; when we don’t have it, we fill in the spaces (usually with something negative or mindless). Just starting on a task gives our minds (and our attention) something to do. Have a variety of small tasks at hand, some mental, some physical, some demanding, some easy. In this way, you have something productive that fits your available resources in that moment. This also boosts your confidence and your ability to tackle bigger challenges you might be avoiding.
  • Understand what you can control and work with what you cannot. If you can control it, do so. If you cannot, find a way to avoid it or minimize its effects. Above all, don’t obsess over the things you cannot change.
  • Offload the burden — lists, plans, maps, priorities, visualizations, planner & organizers can do wonders, if you find the approach that works for you. A “To Do” list might not be the best strategy, but there are several alternatives to distribute the cognitive burden. If you use this technique, a lot a few minutes every morning and evening to consult and reflect on your list. A few quite minutes in the morning, before the demands of the day become pressing, allow you to plan for the possibilities. A few minutes at the end of your workday allow you to reflect on what worked and what didn’t, and to make some notes for the morning. Once you’ve complete your evening recap — you’re done for the day. This ritual can become a clear line between “getting things done” and the rest of your time.
  • When you’re in a task, get out of your own way. It’s called a “flow experience.” When you’re caught up in a task, it becomes its own motivation. Structure your tasks to emphasize those things that help you find your flow.
  • Know the resources a task will really take. For a lot reasons, we’re pretty lousy at estimating what a project will take. That’s not only how much time it will occupy, but also how much effort, thought, emotion, and other resources. Become more conscious about your estimates — then triple them! If you begin coming in under your estimates, you’ll feel better about yourself, and others will see you as a miracle worker (like Scotty from Star Trek).
  • Get help. If someone else does it better and it’s something you can delegate (or barter), let them. We all do better when each of us is allowed to play to our strengths.
  • Be conscious. Pay attention to paying attention. Learn what distracts you and use that information to help you make better decisions about your attention.

Why Pay Attention?
What do you get out of it? A lot. Taming our attention leads to a better understanding of the world, better decisions and better relationships. Better understanding and better decisions lead to a better quality of life all around, but I think better human relationships are an even more important benefit.

Attending someone else is a precious gift. Ask yourself, how often do you get someone else’s complete and undivided attention? How often to you really give it to another?

When you give someone complete attention, you say to them, I would rather do nothing else than invest this bit of my life and experience in you. To reap this benefit, you not only need to pay attention, you must signal to others that you are paying attention. How do we do that? By sending signals that are consistent among our channels. If you’re really paying attention, your nonverbal signals will say so. Others may not recognize exactly what’s going on, but they will notice and that will translate to a more solid bond between you, higher regard, and increased trust.

Time is a nonrenewable resource. By spending your time really engaged with others, you effectively tell them that the time you’re spending together is important. When we listen to others, we tend to be passive and distracted. We fill in those passive spaces with other things — we daydream, plan, or make snarky comments to ourselves. When we listen to others, we also tend to race ahead, planning our responses. Even though, by the time the other is finished, what we want to say is often different.

But you can work on resisting that temptation by listening actively. People are fascinating. We can learn something from everyone. When we understand others better, we can be better partners, parents, friends and colleagues. If it’s worth spending your time listening to someone, you should get the most out of it. So in your next conversation, really pay attention. You may be surprised at what you learn!

What impresses you?

What impresses you?

In one of my LinkedIn groups, a member (Shannon Miller) asked a thoughtful question that prompted me to dig the following bits out of my archive and post it.

So what impresses me?  Three things impress me, every time, without fail.

Real expertise.  Real expertise is qualitatively different, even from someone who has much learning and experience.  Experts think about the problem differently, and that’s evidenced through how they act.  There’s a surety and efficiency to expertise.  Years ago, I would rush to the front window when I heard the truck coming on trash day.  I would stand there with my morning cup of hot tea just to watch one gentleman.  We was a middle-aged garbageman and was truly elegant in his motions.  He had a complete understanding of how his job was best accomplished and managed to smoothly execute even as he was instructing his younger co-worker.  Expertise is elegant, and it’s everywhere — if you open your eyes to it.

Spontaneous laughter.
Spontaneous laughter.

Spontaneous expressions of joy (not “happiness” — happiness is shallow and common).  True joy is much rarer, and real joy cannot be planned or anticipated.  It escapes from us involuntarily in a giggle, sigh, gasp, moan or belly laugh.  Children, just learning the world (if they are fortunate enough to be born into security and love), evidence a lot of joy with each new discovery.  I remember the peals of delighted baby laughter the day our son discovered his right foot — and that it would (sort of) do what he wished.

Common decency.  “Common” decency is not common enough, but it’s around us in small, often overlooked, gestures.  It’s in the ways we acknowledge our shared humanity without making a big deal of it: opening a doors for someone, carrying a package, returning a dropped wallet, thanking a frazzled server on a very hectic day.  Decency, for me, is just about the little, spontaneous ways we connect and try to make a difficult life a bit easier for one another — with no thought of reward.

It’s a privilege to witness these unselfconscious, transcendent moments.  They are all ordinary, yet wholly exceptional, nonetheless.  I suppose, they all have two things in common: they evidence when people are “in the flow” and are truly connected to their environment or one another.

So what impresses you?  What causes you to pause in your day and note the remarkably ordinary?

A Wealth of Data We Don’t Always See

A Wealth of Data We Don’t Always See

You’re the expert on your enterprise, but we tend to get so caught up in the day-to-day details of making it work that we all lose sight of the forest for the trees.  Even Small and Medium-Sized Organizations have access to a wealth of data.  But there are three main challenges to making it useful.

PageLines- confused.jpg1.    Recognizing what is data, and what is useful data.  We have data about costs and revenues, storefront traffic, marketing campaigns, employee behaviors, and a host of other things — and those are just the obvious sources within our enterprises.  There are also many potential data sources that we don’t see as such: observing customer and employee behavior, informally asking targeted questions of both purchasers and those who choose not to, or company documents are just some of the potential windows into our operations that we tend to overlook.  And there are excellent external data sources, often collected by government agencies and trade or professional associations, that can provide community, market, and other contexts for your business operations.

2.    Making the data usable.  Our data come in many forms, and they don’t naturally go together.  But there are many tools we can use to simplify data collection and tracking.  A Microsoft Excel or OpenOffice Calc spreadsheet can often do the trick, and there are a growing number of simple digital platforms that automate much of the process and return easy to understand graphs and metrics.  You want to focus as much time as possible on your core operations, so data collection and analysis needs to fit seamlessly into your business processes.

3.    Understanding what the data say.  Most of us aren’t exactly comfortable analyzing and interpreting data.  If we were, we’d have gone into a different line of work.  We want to focus on our core business processes and messing about with data just seems too far off task.  But the right data can help us see patterns we would otherwise miss: Are most of our customers new or returning?  Are there cycles for particular products?  Is it easier to cross-sell some items for some types of customer?

Just a bit of time and effort to think through your data processes can generate impressive ROI.  Better data helps us break out of what we think we know about our businesses.  Better data is surprising and useful.  It just takes a fresh perspective on the trees we face every day.

So look around your enterprise and ask: What questions do you keep asking yourself?  What problems do you keep facing?  Then consider: What would you need to know in order to have an actionable answer?  How can you most easily get the data you need to keep answering that question in a changing market?  The key is to start looking at the world as data — everything is potentially data!  The answers are often in front of you, with just a little shift in perspective.

Predicting the 2012 Presidential Election

Predicting the 2012 Presidential Election

Dr. Payne's final 2012 Presidential election projection (Tuesday, 6 November 2012 AM).
Dr. Payne’s final 2012 Presidential election projection (Tuesday, 6 November 2012 AM).

In the days leading up to the 2012 Presidential Election, I posted my Electoral College predictions and analysis to my Facebook stream. As social scientist and a data geek, I’ve run statistical election predictions since 1996. This time, I used it as an opportunity to field test some new statistical modeling techniques I’m developing for my company, DART Research, Inc. Most of those elections weren’t especially close, but this election was widely touted in the press as a “horserace.” The only catch is, that’s not what the data said. Ever.

Continue reading

Prelude to “The Wall”

Prelude to “The Wall”

Poster from "Roger Waters The Wall Live" (2010)
Poster from “Roger Waters The Wall Live” (2010)

This morning, my wife was running errands and stopped at the local gas station to fill up.  The corner gas station was hopping, and she waited her turn at the pump.  A space opened, she pulled in, and began to pump her gas.  Across the parking lot, about half-a-dozen young, African-American men were hanging out — sitting on their cars, talking, sipping soft drinks, and enjoying one of the last mild days of autumn.  Doing the things that teenage guys everywhere do on a lazy Saturday morning.  One of the young men turned on his radio to a hip-hop station.

According to my wife’s account, the music was barely audible at her distance.  Yet the elderly man gassing up his pickup on the far side of her pump was incensed.  Enraged, he popped open his camper shell, retrieved a baseball bat from within, and began swinging it wildly, screaming profanities and racial epithets.

My wife, caught in middle, quietly finished filling her tank and walked into the store to let them know that a “race riot” was about to break out in their parking lot.  The attendants followed their procedure: they locked the door (trapping my wife inside for the duration) and called 911.

We live in a small, quiet suburb and the police officer soon arrived.  The elderly man was still screaming and swinging his bat wildly, but he hadn’t advanced on the young men, who were still staring in amazement and laughing unbelievingly at his uncontrolled display.  (In my mind’s eye, from my wife’s description, I picture a white-haired Yosemite Sam on a wild tear.)  The officer parked his car in between the parties, but this didn’t discourage the tirade.

He took statements from the witnesses and, the last my wife saw as she left the station, he was calmly talking to the offending gentleman in the front seat of his squad car.  The young men smiled and waved covertly at my wife, the white lady in the Volvo who cared enough to say something in their defense.

We’re going to see Roger Waters’ touring revival of “The Wall” tonight at the Sprint Center.  That album was probably my first real “favorite” album, and it was an important voice though my adolescence.  I didn’t have the opportunity to see it back then (few did) — they only performed about 30 shows in four locations world wide.  The closest to me were New York and LA, and I was just a kid in Kansas City.  I had to wait until their next tour, in 1988, to see them perform live.  Until this tour, “The Wall” has only been performed live once (1990, Berlin, to mark the tearing down of that infamous Cold War wall).  I would have gone to that, but I already had a European trip planned and, being a poor, starving college student at the time, just couldn’t afford it — although I was jealous of a couple of friends who did manage to go.

So tonight is probably my only opportunity to see one of my favorite musical pieces performed live by its creator (although I’m sad the surviving members of Pink Floyd aren’t joining Waters).  It is an overwrought, psychedelic narrative mess.  But it still strikes me as profoundly honest and it deftly and courageously engages themes that are important to me.

I’ve been writing a lot about fear and hatred the past couple of years, as I’ve worked to complete a book manuscript about how the world we’ve created seems so often to disappoint, go astray from our plans, and divide us (as well as, of course, my modest thoughts about what we can do to improve it).  Those themes are central to “The Wall.”  And they are also crucial to understanding the small, shocking display of blind hatred my wife witnessed this morning, practically in our own backyard.

I don’t know anything about the man who so completely came unglued this morning.  There are many reasons for why he could have acted the way he did (and almost none of them have anything to do with the young men to which his hatred was directed).  But I’ll be thinking about him this evening as we watch “The Wall.”

We See What isn’t There

We See What isn’t There

I have long quipped that, “humans are so good at seeing patterns that we find them where none exist.”  But it wasn’t until sometime in graduate school that I learned the technical term for it: “apophenia.”  (A visual apophenia is a pareidolia.)  I still share this one with my students at some appropriate juncture almost every term.

Humans see figures in clouds, constellations in stars, the man in the moon, deeper significance in particular numbers (i.e., 3, 7, 12, 23, 666), and faces in geological formations.  We are more prone to seeing relatively simple patterns in randomness than we are to missing simple patterns that do exist.  We are also prone to asserting the reality of specific kinds of pattern: linearities, periodicities, and those that mimic some natural forms like the human face.

The Cydonia Mensae region of Mars.  Many see the hill in the top center of this photo (taken by Viking 1 in 1976) as a face.  Inset: the same region photographed in 2006 by the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Recon Orbiter.
The Cydonia Mensae region of Mars. Many see the hill in the top center of this photo (taken by Viking 1 in 1976) as a face. Inset: the same region photographed in 2006 by the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Recon Orbiter.

I contend that apophenia was adaptive.  In fact, one of the key characteristics defining our shared experience is that humans are active, adaptive, meaning-makers.  Our strength and our weakness is that we are so very good at identifying perceived patterns in all forms of stimuli: visual, aural, tactile, conceptual, cultural, social, and others.  This is a characteristic humans share with all life, but we are particularly facile at it and this ability is one of the roots of our evolutionary success.  It is also a source of many of our human problems.

Our ancestors who were more likely to discern patterns in the world were more likely to detect potentially harmful patterns, and so more likely to survive.  They lived in the midst of nature, life was precarious, and mistakes could often be deadly.  If they reacted to a potentially negative sensory pattern and it turned out to be false, then they could survive to laugh it off as an overreaction.  But if they failed to notice those environmental signals, then the chances are one of those missed cues would eventually kill them.

Consider Og and Froosh, two early human ancestors hunting on the savannah.  They grunt to one another in their proto-language…

Og: “Oh, look, there’s a rustling in the underbrush.  Ya think it might be a sabertooth tiger?”

Froosh: “Nah, it’s just the wind.”

Og: “I dunno.  I think I’m gettin’ outta here.”

Og runs away.  Froosh, laughing at his timidity, is eaten by the sabertooth tiger that emerges from the brush.  This may have happened many times before with Og running from shadows and the wind while Froosh mocked his jumpy friend.  But the result was that, the one time Og was right, Froosh died.  Cautious Og lives on to have a family and dies peacefully on his pallet at the ripe old age of 40.  We learned, over many generations, that it is better to err on the side of apophenia.

There are only two ways we can be wrong: we can think we’ve detected a pattern when, in fact, there is none (Type I error, alpha error, or false positive), or we can miss detecting a pattern that really exists (Type II error, beta error, or false negative).  Type I error happens when our detection gear is too sensitive, Type II error is a result of it not being sensitive enough.

The scientific method is inherently conservative — not in the political sense, but in the sense of requiring exceptional evidence for us to provisionally accept a newly identified pattern as probably real.  It is designed to guard especially against those false positives.  This is particularly important because humans are adapted to err on the side of Type I, and not Type II, error.  All things being equal, we are far more likely to “see” something that does not exist than to not notice something that is real.

But being prone to Type I error is not now as adaptive as it long was.  We have created an environment that no longer rewards this tendency as it did.  We have created a world that is busier and chock full of signals, but many of those are not meaningful or relevant — and their speed and density is confusing, further encouraging us to find meaning where we can make it.  We have also created a world where a greater proportion of the signals we experience are human created cultural products — reinforcing our default position of finding patterns (because they now really are everywhere), and so our likelihood of falling prey to apophenia (not everything is pattern).

Extreme cases of apophenia may be debilitating, and so usefully categorized as pathological, but such cases are rare.  It’s everyday forms are far more common and often result in poor decisions.  Apophenia is also doubtlessly related to human creativity, which is a necessary trait.  Innovation entertains us, enriches us, and allows us to progress, individually and collectively.  But too much creativity incorrectly applied leads us down blind alleys, wastes human effort, and even destroys lives.

As always, the trick is still to discern which patterns are real and which are (sometimes even well-meant) illusion.  The trick is to find the balance allowing us to recognize the reality facing us and still see those possibilities not yet recognized.  It is easy to recognize apophenia in those with whom we disagree.  Our continuing challenge is to see it in ourselves, and in those we love and respect.

[I particularly recommend this Digital Bits Skeptic article for an in-depth exploration of apophenia.]