Shit Happens

Focuses on research done by University of Tennessee psychologists into the human ability to detect and accept randomness. How our minds are trained to resist randomness, searching for meaning even where none exists; Research done at Duke University which focused on whether humans have the ability to act in a random fashion.

By PT Staff, published May 1, 1995 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Humans have a rocky relationship with randomness. On the one hand, we declarethat "shit happens"--an acknowledgment that bad things sometimes occur for no particular reason. But more often than not, our minds resist randomness, searching for meaning even where none exists.

When University of Tennessee psychologists gave students random, computer-generated analogies, the undergraduates had little trouble coming up with the "logic" behind nonsensical phrases like, Horse is to time as stone is to book. However far-fetched their interpretations, the students nonetheless seemed to believe that their explanations were reasonable, reports Michael G. Johnson, Ph.D.

"One of the basic human characteristics is to try to search for meaning," Johnson says. "We use whatever means are available to us to explain randomly occurring events." That's why we often interpret chance happenings as signs from God, or credit our "lucky socks" for a successful night of poker. Or we say a player is on a hot streak if he scores a dozen baskets in a row, when in fact a run of success (or a run of failure) may be due simply to chance.

Not only do we have trouble recognizing randomness, but we may be incapable of acting in a truly random fashion. Researchers at Duke University asked subjects to imagine a raindrop falling randomly on a blank square of paper. The subjects marked where they thought the drop might land. Superimposing hundreds of responses, "you get a nice 'X' on the paper," says Gregory Lockhead, Ph.D. Even our random acts, it seems, are predictable.

Why are we so bad at detecting randomness? Probably because the ability to recognize patterns of events--and to identify their cause--has survival value, says Lockhead. Thus our minds may be designed to detect meaning, whether or not there is any to be found.