You flip a coin three times in a row. All three times, it comes up heads. How do you predict the next toss would land? The pessimist will suggest that the pattern is bound to break. Their best guess is tails. The optimist will think, “Hey, I’m on a roll! Heads all the way, baby!”
Of course, the actual answer in both cases is always the same: 50/50 for heads or tails.
The mental quirk that sees patterns in coin tosses once kept us alive. Back on the savannah, when your ancestors saw that bush rustle up ahead, their pattern-seeking brains gave them pause, calculating that if a lion had been there before, it could be there again. Maybe this time it was only the night breeze, but why take the chance? It only took one mistake to become dinner.
These days, unless you live near a wildlife preserve or a low-security zoo, that rustling is pretty much always gonna be the wind. But those ancient instincts are still with us, conjuring pattern mirages from nowhere. Think Vegas; there’s a reason why it’s filled with giant fake pyramids and opulent palaces. They serve as shrines to our misguided notion of predictability. Stir in a dollop of loss aversion and you have a surefire recipe for a one-way money transfer from your pocket to casino coffers.
But it’s not just Sin City. The same holds true in the stock market; your last buy has no bearing on the success of your next buy. And while basketball fans swear up and down in the “hot hand” phenomena, in between shouting at the point guard to get the ball to the shooter on fire, the success of one basket in no way influences the next one.
Last night, along with millions of other pattern-seeking brains, I watched the presidential debate. The Republicans were certain their man Romney’s firmly set jaw and steely-eyed stare was proof of a pattern to lead. The Democrats were equally comforted by a President radiating a cool but reserved demeanor, suggesting a man you should trust, a man in control. Meanwhile, the Independent lay in wait behind the metaphorical bush, waiting and watching with the eyes of a hunter for telltale signs of strength or weakness.
Remember Richard Nixon’s five o’clock shadow and sweaty brow during the Kennedy debates, or George Bush senior checking his watch? And then there’s Al Gores infamous sighs, and Bill Clinton’s wading out from behind the podium to feel the pain of the televised audience. Like palm readers searching for the deep meaning in the crease of the hand, we tend to believe these signs represent patterns portending something much larger. We strain for that momentary drive-by view into the candidate’s soul.
Is it possible that a bad Philly cheesesteak earlier in the day could spell doom for a candidate the night of the debate? “He just wasn’t himself tonight; he appeared disengaged.” According to the smart people at Metamucil, when things go bad in the colon--well, they can go very bad indeed.
Is this really the way we choose the man that will occupy the highest office in the land? Does it all come down to a facial tick, a poorly timed nose wipe, or an unfortunate bout of constipation?
The answer, of course, is yes.
Studies show people vote less on the meat of the issues, and more on the plating technique. The numbers are startling: roughly 65% of a voter’s decision is based on body language, 28% on the candidate’s tone of voice, and only 7% on the words they use. And that’s not even factoring in the unavoidable pre-debate bias.
Maybe we should just acknowledge the truth about how we humans make even our most crucial decisions. What if we turned the sound down and let the professional sports casters call the debate?
“That’s right Frank--his mouth is moving but his eyes tell a different story. Did you see that body English on that head fake, and whoa, was that a full side shrug? He’s definitely showing the kind of flexibility that makes for a great commander in chief, we all know agility is the name of the game.”
I can almost hear the crowd roar as the coin leaves the referee’s hand and spins high into the glare of the television lights. A hush falls as the coin tumbles down towards the stiff red stage carpet. You can cut the tension with a knife.
What’s it gonna be, America? Heads or tails?