On making patterns and links – meaning and illusion

One of the natural wonders of human life is the way in which we look for connections, patterns, and links. We try and make sense of potentially unrelated events and actions by looking for relationships between them. One of my high school teachers told me that I look for things that aren’t there, so I have a strong sense of looking for relationships and connections! But by the same token, I am acutely aware that imagined connections may appear to have some meaning but in fact have no real relationship at all.

My long-time  interest in psychology brought me to the attention of the work by Harold Kelley, and in particular,  attribution theory and causal attribution. The gist of it all is that people to seek to attribute a certain causal relationship between two (or more) events to themselves, often a self-rationalisation and often completely unrelated to the actual reality (causality) of the relationship being considered.

So I was therefore not surprised when I read this news story about a tree stump in Ireland that purported to show an image of the Catholic “Our Lady” in the wood grain. The news story reminded me of a similar event years ago when a spilt milk shake in a lift in the US yielded a similar iconic response.

We look for patterns and links to explain things to give us meaning. It is not just primitive societies seeking explanation for drought and flood from sun gods and rain gods; modern society also looks to find meaning and explanation for things that happen or are likely to occur.  Superstition is everywhere.

At the same time, we need to be wary of attributing causality and seeing relationships and linkages that are not really there. If we are not discriminating in our thinking or analysis, then we can come up with some rather ridiculous explanations for things that have no real relationship at all – and history is littered with them, and not just in Ireland.

Now, I am beginning to look at how to map some workplace relationships (the work-oriented ones rather than the social ones at present) and communication channels between groups in order to get a picture of how people share information within identified networks. I am interested in levels of intensity, direction of flow, and whether there are particular gatekeepers or knowledge hubs.

Yet I am conscious of using this information without looking for relationships and making conclusions that don’t really exist – attribution theory and causal attribution are certainly on my mind. Are the linkages showing real relationships and do those linkages and relationship really matter? Care will clearly need to be taken in drawing out meaningful observations and conclusions.

Let’s look at the following list and try and identify what they each have in common (I love playing this type of game with my daughter, so bear with me on this one). I know it’s not as sophisticated and meaningful as the oft-used Dave Snowden example – cow, chicken, grass – but this is more for fun to illustrate a point.

  • Richie Blackmore
  • Greenpeace
  • Judy Garland
  • Goorialla

So, does it matter?


2 responses to “On making patterns and links – meaning and illusion

  1. Interesting point you are making. When mapping out the networks, has it ever occurred to you that you might not just attribute but actually create meaning through this process? You draw the networks, discuss them with your participants and now that they feel like Bill is the central knowledge hub or Amanda is a central bottleneck, they might go to Bill for knowledge and try to avoid or bypass Amanda – even if they didn’t do so before…

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