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Why so many gamblers (you?) see patterns in the progress of the games

17 December 2012

Many casino aficionados look for, and find, patterns in the results of series of recent rounds in the games they play. At the slots, for instance, bettors’ hopes may rise after several increasingly rewarding spins – interspersed with duds though they may be – believing their machines to be building up to big bonanzas. As another illustration, roulette players may base current bets on preceding sequences of anything from colors to odd and even or high and low numbers, rows, columns, or individual spots. Likewise but even simpler at baccarat, rhythms are frequently sensed in chains having only three types of links – Player, Banker, or Tie. And similarly, Blackjack buffs often size their wagers according to conceptions involving past card sequences or draws. The list could go on. Solid citizens can and do picture patterns in whatever they try.

For all practical purposes, casino games are random. Patterns a person may envision in previous outcomes are accordingly coincidental and have no predictive value. In technical terms, historical records of order comprise only noise and contain no information. Otherwise, the bosses would be sowing the seeds of their own destruction with the tote boards tallying strings of earlier results at roulette and baccarat tables in gambling dens all across this great country of ours.

So, if fixation on patterns in casinos has no value, why is it so common? Indeed, why is fixation on irrelevant patterns in everyday life so widespread? And so enduring, as evidenced by the antiquity of gazing at the sky on clear nights and identifying groups of stars as constellations with shapes such as a bear, a lion, a hunter, a swan, or a goat – when the light sources in question are usually unrelated to and hundreds or thousands of light years distant from one another.

Michael Shermer proposes answers to these questions in his new book, “The Believing Brain.” Shermer defines patternicity as the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise. And, he claims, it’s genetic in humans and animals alike.

By way of explanation, Shermer says to imagine you’re a prehistoric creature, hominid or otherwise, walking through the savanna several million years ago. You hear the grass rustling. Is it just the wind, or a creature for whom you would make a tasty meal? Pretend you assume the sound is a signal alerting you to a dangerous predator. You might then take evasive or defensive action. If it’s really the wind, the mental pattern you formed from the sound is of no consequence, but precautions based on this false positive aren’t generally harmful. Conversely, you might figure the sound is merely the wind and continue on your merry way. If it was actually caused by a stalking carnivore, the false negative deprives you of the opportunity to make ensuant contributions to the gene pool which will define the future of your species.

The penultimate conclusion of Shermer’s premise is that humans, casino patrons or not, and other sentient animals descend and evolved from ancestors adept at finding patterns. The bottom line, though, is that genetic self-selectivity did and does favor proficiency at detecting what may be information buried in noise, and a tendency to ascribe meaning to what they believe they discover. However, it did and does not include means to differentiate between false negatives and false positives. In Shermer’s words, “There was a natural selection for ... seeking and finding patterns, connecting the dots, ... [and] the cognitive process of assuming that all patterns are real and that all patternicities represent real and important phenomena.”

Comparable reasoning applies to superstitions, which are typically variants of patternicity involving associations based on anecdotal evidence. Blackjack players may remember losing what seemed to be promising hands when others at the table flouted Basic Strategy. They form a pattern that associates the latter with the former and believe that someone “failing to play by ‘the book’ changes the flow of the cards and ruins the table for everyone else.”

Reasoning of this type, Shermer notes, dates back millions of years and comes naturally to people with the genes of the proto-humans who got through the savanna intact. Scientific analysis incorporating control of ancillary variables to eliminate false positives began around the time of Galileo (1564-1642), and requires training not only to perform but also to appreciate.

Well, this may be a good place to stop. Or we soon may find ourselves asking whether patternicity, bereft of discrimination though it may be, is essential to rational as it is to cockamamie beliefs. Which, of course, we already are. For, as the sagacious scribbler, Sumner A Ingmark, stated:
From tunnel vision insight freed us,
To branch along where fresh thoughts lead us.
Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.