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“Celestia mars” by NikoLang – Own work (Screenshot). Licensed under GPL via Wikimedia Commons.

One of my favorite fringe theories is that Phobos, one of the two Martian moons, is actually an artificial satellite. The theory goes that it was put into place (or possibly built) by an ancient, advanced civilization, which may still exist.

Evidence for this theory usually consists of an extended analysis of grainy photographs in which patterns and shapes are interpreted to be meaningful. This is not so different from the famous Face on Mars, a structure which resembles a human face closely enough to set off a flurry of speculation.

Humans naturally seek out patterns and meaning as a way to predict the future, whether it’s something as simple as understanding how a friend will react to a particular piece of information, or something as complex as a five-year business plan. But this ability also turns up false positives, and when it does it can be difficult for us to accept that our conclusions are false.

Michael Shermer, writing in Scientific American, calls this tendency to find a false signal in all the noise “patternicity,” and gives several significant examples of where we can still see it at work. While it can be easy to dismiss fringe theories, what’s harder is to accept that these same cognitive mechanisms are at work in our own brains.

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“Wentletrap” by Steve Jurvetson. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License

Even more troubling, there is some evidence that these mechanisms can be kicked into high gear when you feel helpless. According to a 2008 study, a person is more likely to see false patterns when a situation is outside of their control. It’s easy to see the problem here – when you’re under stress and most in need of mental acuity, that’s when it’s most likely to be compromised.

When you’re marketing your business or non-profit, it takes a significant commitment of time, money, and resources. You want to see results, and so do your shareholders. Without realizing it, you may perceive patterns and results where there aren’t any. The risk is that you’ll continue investing in a strategy that doesn’t work, or abandon one that does.

That’s one reason experts recommend relying on a trusted outside party to analyze your data. Partnering with an agency that has the experience necessary to sift through the raw data of a campaign and draw fact-based conclusions on its efficacy is a sure way to avoid false patterns.

But don’t take my word for it. If you’re not convinced, just ask the Martians.