“Henry, I don’t think we’re going to catch this guy!” a policeman says as he and his partner chase a motorcyclist down a winding road through some scenic mountains at a dangerously rapid rate, during the opening credits of our movie.
“I think he might be the best we ever saw,” Henry replies. Even if the policemen could get close enough to see the motorcyclist, she is wearing a helmet with a heavily tinted visor that covers every inch of her face. “We’re not going to catch him,” Henry concedes. “He’s too good.” Chance intervenes, and they somehow manage to pull this woman over. When they remove her helmet, they discover that the alleged culprit is a woman. “It’s a woman?” the males whisper in awe.
“And I would’ve gotten away with it too,” she whispers between bared teeth, “if it weren’t for you meddling males.”
Movies operate in patterns humans don’t.
Two grizzled, burly men play darts. The pinpoint accuracy of the men impresses us, but it does not impress the main character of our production, a woman. Some clever wordplay ensues in which the woman, while downing shots of a highly alcoholic drink, subtly and confidently implies that she can beat both of them. “You? But, you’re just a woman,” the men say. They laugh. They laugh harder when she downs that alcoholic drink without so much as a grimace, as she prepares to stand. They’re near hysterics when she takes a dart, and she looks at the laughing men while throwing the dart. She doesn’t even look at the dartboard. The dart hits the center of the target so hard that it blasts through the center, and the wall behind it, where it hits an oxygen tank in a neighboring medical supplies store. The explosive blast sends the two men, now locked in silent awe, through the wall of the saloon and out into the highway. The blast only musses the dart-throwing female’s gorgeous locks of hair a little. She calmly walks toward the men with other blasts, from other oxygen tanks, exploding in her background as she nonchalantly steps on the highway. The 110lb woman then picks one of the 250lb men up with her index finger, as he whimpers, begging for mercy. She ignores his pleas and pulls him in closer, whispering, “And you, you’re just a man.” She then pulls out her sawed off shotgun and blows the man’s head clean off.
Movies operate in patterns humans don’t.
*“There are three things,” according to author Scott Adams, “to know about human beings in order to understand why we do the things we do.
- Humans use pattern recognition to understand their world.
- Humans are very bad at pattern recognition
- And they don’t know it.”
We see patterns in movies, because most of them follow patterns. As Roger Ebert once said, “The motto in Hollywood is if something works, try, try and try it again.” Movies also fall into patterns because movie makers are lazy, they’re not as creative as we think, they to try to affect social change, and they know how much we love patterns. We find patterns pleasing, and they make us feel smart when we figure them out. We find those artistic enterprises that don’t follow our patterns “confusing,” “weird,” and “hard to follow.” They usually end up in “art house” bargain bins.
We want movies to follow patterns, because we want life to follow patterns. We want to be able to figure people, places and things out. We want to be smart and being smart means spotting outcomes before they occur. We use pattern recognition to predict how others will act and react on a situational basis. We’re wrong on occasion, but we don’t expect to be right all of the time, and we focus on the times when we were right. We’re wrong in life as often as we are when we watch Jeopardy! Yet, how many of us knew the answer soon after the Jeopardy! contestant provided it? We clinch our fists in frustration, because we were so close to getting the answer before they did. How many of us accumulate so many of those almost-got it, should’ve-known, and after-the-fact answers that we actually believe we knew the answer, and we knew so many of those answers that we now consider ourselves trivia masters?
How many after-the-fact, should’ve-known trivia masters, who know a little something something about human nature, can tell us what we’re going to do next, after we do it? “I knew you were going to do that,” they say.
“Wait a second,” we say when they do this to us one too many times. “I already did it. You’re brilliant at predicting what I’m going to do next, after I do it, but if you want any credit for predicting what I’m about to do, you have to say something before I do it.”
“But if I tell you,” they say, “you’ll do something else to prove me wrong.”
“Fine,” we say. “Tell someone else. Whisper it to them. If that person verifies that you were right, we can start putting together your scorecard.”
They might have a brilliant response for us, regarding how they knew what we were going to do. They might be able to provide interesting details regarding their meticulous study of human nature, their knowledge of us, and their observational skills in general, but they didn’t put that knowledge on the line when it counted. They might know the patterns and routines of humans, and they might say they can use that knowledge to predict what we’re going to do next, but most of us aren’t as great as recognizing patterns as we think.
The last emotional, irrational cerebral crush I had on someone was a man named John Douglas, a man many credit with being the first to use the art of profiling to capture serial killers. Douglas used extensive interviews with serial killers to gain insight into the mind of men who do such things. His book influenced the creation of the movie Silence of the Lambs, and Netflix later used Douglas’ book Mindhunter for a series of the same name. Silence of the Lambs wasn’t the first movie to focus on the magic of criminal profiling, but it launched the idea of it into the zeitgeist. The idea that certain people exhibit certain patterned behavior can predict future crimes seemed so obvious that we couldn’t believe no one ever thought of it before. If you’re looking for a serial killer, these profiles suggested, look for a single, white man who has military experience and mother issues, and is between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five. Look for a guy who visits the scene of the crime. Look for the guy who pulled the wings off grasshoppers and tortured other small animals in his youth. Of course, we think, he’s just like my cousin Kirk. I always knew he’d grow up to be a serial killer.
Movies operate in patterns humans don’t.
The cerebral crush I developed involved far too many emotions, as I fell in love with what I considered Douglas’ rational deductions and persuasive prose. I ignored the idea that Douglas’ study of patterns in human behavior often led to after-the-fact, educated guesses that could help law enforcement officials gain convictions. This earns the “Wait a second …” question all authors dread. Wait a second, I thought your book implied that following the patterns of behavior could lead to the apprehension of suspects that were on the loose. It’s been a while since I’ve read this book, but in my opinion Douglas is not the creative genius he purported to be in this regard. I believed that this veteran FBI expert had enough experience in his field to spot patterns beyond otherwise trivial coincidences. I’ve since heard that veteran law enforcement officials groan when their superiors call profilers in on a case, in the same manner they groan when psychics are called upon.
John Douglas was correct on occasion, and he trumpeted his success in his book, but how often was his attempts to use patterns of human characteristics and behavior to pinpoint the serial killer wrong? Douglas did not provide a scorecard for his “creative thinking” in his book, but he did confess that there could be a psychic component to it. “If there is a psychic component to this, I won’t run away from it, though I regard it more in the realm of creative thinking.” This line led to some of us to run away from him.
The “creative thinking” that some credit Douglas for starting is so ubiquitous in movies and TV shows now that we all know the bullet points, and the procedures that profilers use. We know them so well that we can spot the serial killer twenty minutes into any production. We know, for example, that when the head strong, female FBI agent creates a profile on an Episcopalian from Newark, New Jersey that she’s hot on the trail. None of the other FBI agents can see the correlation between the Episcopalian religion and someone wanting to tear the head off buxom young collegiate blondes, but she has a gut instinct based on years of experience, and we know she’s right. We don’t understand why the other male FBI agents don’t see how the trail she carefully lays out that will lead to the correct suspect. They begrudgingly see the errors of their ways before the credits roll, but they don’t want to give her the credit she deserves. That would shake up their whole world.
Movies operate in patterns humans don’t.
If we know the pattern, we can spot the climax of a movie far before it arrives, a punchline of a joke before the joke teller gets there, and the return to the refrain of a song, after the bridge, before the band starts in on it. The idea that we can detect patterns and predict outcomes pleases us, and it makes us feel more intelligent for spotting it. We then employ that confidence in our ability to figure out patterns and see coincidences in our everyday interactions to know the people, places, and things around us a little better. The question we rarely ask ourselves, because we rarely remember when we guessed incorrectly, is how often are we wrong? The complicated algorithm can be broken down to a line the Coen Brothers wrote for the actor who played The Dude in The Big Lebowski, “That’s just, like, your opinion man.”
I never personally encountered one of those “supercomputers” from the sci-fi movies in the 50’s and 60’s. Those supercomputers were the size of a large room, and the moviemakers depicted them as having knowledge beyond human capacity. The supercomputers in these movies are usually entities in their own right with some ominous one-to-two syllable name, and the movies rarely mention a human programmer. The humans in the movie feed these allegedly autonomous computers data for a problem they want to solve and the “supercomputers” spit out an answer on a tiny, yellow slip of paper (it’s always yellow for some reason). The autonomous computers has data on the patterns of human behavior, and it spits out an answer allegedly not subject to human opinions and biases. If that were the case, one would think that the yellow slip of paper would say, “not much will change in the next fifty years.” That would not move the plot of the movie well, nor would a prediction that suggested, “There will be nothing but good times ahead for the human race.” The prediction on that yellow slip of paper is almost always dreadfully negative, and it’s often something we can’t handle. The only suitable answer, for the characters of the movie is to destroy the supercomputer before it infects the world with its brand of unbiased truth.
Movies operate in patterns humans don’t.
Hindsight now allows us to view these scary, sci-fi movies as silly. The fear of computers, robots, or any artificial intelligence progressing past human intelligence is evergreen, but the idea that those archaic, room-length 1950’s machines could act independent of a programmer’s influence, or the movie maker’s influence, seems so silly now. We know those yellow slips of paper displayed a prediction based the mover maker’s opinion based upon an “expert’s” opinion, dressed up as a fact from a computer that allegedly escaped the bounds of human opinion and bias. If we could find one of those room length supercomputers from the 50’s to recreate the situation, we’d ask, “Okay, great, now who programmed this computer?” Computers are still not autonomous at this point, and they are still programmed with an opinion, based on an opinion, dressed up as a fact.
When we bite into a bland piece of chicken, loaded with preservatives, one of the first questions we ask is how many generations ago was this piece of meat actually attached to a chicken? We could ask the same questions of facts we receive from our modern, yellow slips of paper from a computer or device, in the form of search engine results, “Who wrote this?” Who provided the data for that modern, yellow slips of paper, and how many generations ago was this answer a primary source fact?
The response writers of search engine results might have is that their answers are based on agreed upon historical facts, but how much of human history is based on some form of propaganda? How do other countries view our historical facts? Are there any discrepancies? The old saying is that winners write the history books. If that’s the case, how much of our history is based on propaganda, and an opinion based on an opinion of that propaganda that leads to an agreed upon fact? How many generations ago was that fact, upon which we all base our opinions, a fact? How many different incarnations has this grapevine truth gone through before it reached us?
We’ve all heard the George Santayana quote, “Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.” I’ll confess that I’ve probably used this quote as often as anyone else has without vetting it thoroughly. I also never read a contrarian, like author Scott Adams, dissect the quote and question its greater value. I heard so many brilliant minds drop this quote whenever people, or their leaders, were on the precipice of disaster that I did not question it enough. My prior interpretation of this quote was that if we study the patterns from the past, it will help us know more about our present, and it might help us in future endeavors. If human history is based upon an opinion, based on an opinion from some propaganda, based on a perceived pattern that led to some fact that we now all consider true, how often do we know what’s going happen in the future, how often will we be wrong, and how often will we have to repeat if necessary?
If we follow the patterns of history, will we learn that they are always going to be some human beings who are inherently violent, corrupt, and deceptive? Do we need to study patterns in history to know that? Can we use the map of past human behavior to dictate how we should act and react to others in the future, maybe, when it comes to specific individuals, but how does studying the interactions between ancient Athens and Rome help a country in their current relations with Uruguay? Adams alluded to the idea that the Santayana quote might help naïve leaders who believe that specific leaders of generally corrupt countries will somehow act less than corrupt when the naïve leader proposes laying a path for a new relationship. If that leader and his people fail to study the patterned history of this country, and its leader, they will be doomed to repeat the failures of other leaders who believed they could achieve a different result.
Humans are inherently routine, some might argue, and if we study their general patterns and the trends in history and society today, we can understand how humans will react on a situational basis. We know that residents of South Dakota will react different from residents of Uruguay, but if we gain a general sense of human nature and interaction, we might be able to determine human behavior through patterns. Maybe, to a certain degree, on a case-by-case basis, and depending on situation or issue involved, but how many qualifiers do we need to add to reach a desired conclusion that supports our thesis, opinion, and our biased worldview? If we dig deep enough, in our study of patterns, we (like my friend who could correctly guess what I was going to do after I did it) might find data that supports our opinion and makes us feel like a genius student of human behavior. Our best bet, according to Scott Adams, is stop searching for patterns, trends, and coincidences when trying to figure human nature out, because we’re wrong more often than we’re right. Our best bet is to remove our desire, our need need to be right, and the ego it feeds and admit that we are flawed prognosticators who can predict what will happen in the future.
How many times have we had someone or something all figured out, only to discover that we were wrong? How many times do we rely on patterns, trends, and the overwhelming, “how could you miss it”, coincidences to figure something or someone out? How many of times have we realized that we were so wrong that we’ve been all wrong, all along? Here’s a line some of us love, “I’m more right than they know.” Some of us love that line so much that we live it. Some of us smile a conspiratorial smile in the face of a correction, believing that they do not know now how right we are, but they will … eventually. They will eventually see the light. They consult their experts, we consult ours, but how often are experts wrong? It depends on who you ask and which experts we consult. We passionately believe our informed beliefs system, and they passionately believe theirs. Who wins, who loses, who cares? Our best bet might be to avoid using other’s opinions to inform our opinion on patterns in human behavior, and while we’re at it, we might want to delete our opinions when trying to form an opinion too. Our best bet is if one way doesn’t work, try another.
*Adams, Scott, Loserthink, 2019, New York, Penguin, page 66