This is part of a series on cognitive biases. Click to read more about how bad humans are at reading and understanding
We are all incentivized to recognize patterns. If we know that a certain traffic stop backs up at the same time of the day, you can save a significant amount of time searching for an alternate route. Every part of our lives is subject to ingrained patterns and pre-existing habits that can benefit or even harm us. Finding patterns for yourself can significantly help your work happiness, dating life, financial health, nicotine quitting attempts, learning a new language or weight-loss.
Despite the massive reasons for our natural attraction to patterns, we may have overshot the mark in some cases. Under many circumstances, humans recognize patterns using data that has no underlying correlation. In this case, we believe there is a relationship that does not exist.
Celebrity Deaths Come in Threes
Ignoring confirmation bias for a second (continually scanning for information that agrees with our pre-existing beliefs), we tend to recognize patterns in frivolous details that might not actually exist. Celebrity death clustering generally follows this trend: there are many, many cases of deaths or illnesses that come at sporadic intervals. We only tend to remember when there is a cluster of a few in a short time period. This is inevitable, of course but can use it to make all kinds of assumptions.
This bias is very closely related to the hot-hand fallacy and the gambler’s fallacy: making predictive/causative assumptions from generally unrelated events. The gambler’s fallacy refers to the belief that past random events can predict future events. For example, eight black rolls in roulette in a row means the next one must be black (or must not, according to some)!
How do you counteract this? The first answer is a healthy dose of skepticism. Assume, generally, that there is no correlation between two random events and be rigorous on being convinced. Since there is no time to be able to do this for every topic or subject, the key is to remain pluralistic in your sources. Ensure that your beliefs are repeatedly confirmed across times and publications in many different ways.
Finding No Relationship Can Be Helpful!
Despite the websites that point to fake correlations in a humorous way, we should equally be excited about not finding a relationship between events and finding a relationship. That is not very sexy though, if you can imagine the headline “Data Still Noisy on Caffeine’s Impact on Anxiety”. This bias manifests itself in many ways, not just from an unconscious bias to recognize false correlations but also in expressing an explicit preference for it, as if solving a mystery.
Remaining skeptical can often be seen as non-committal or lacking confidence. Sometimes, when you are skeptical of negative information, the denial could be seen as the Pollyanna principle or the Ostrich effect (easiest way to deal with negative information is to stick your head in the sand, obviously). Just be sure to be flexible in your assumptions and not be too committed to one way of thought.