I often see cases of pareidolia reported in the news, on blogs, and even here. I think remember reading in Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan that this had an evolutionary origin (i.e. if you see a familiar object and it isn't there, that doesn't cost anything in survival, as opposed to NOT seeing an object that really IS there, like a lion about to eat you). However, when I do a google search, I don't find any actual evolutionary biologists talking about the origins of pareidolia, just people repeating this anecdote from Sagan.

I will admit, my google-fu is weak, but I would like to find out if there are actual papers and studies that can confirm or deny the origin of our species towards pareidolia. A common definition of pareidolia is:

a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant. Common examples include seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon or the Moon rabbit, and hearing hidden messages on records played in reverse.

Does anyone have any scholarly documentation from an evolutionary biologist that speaks to the origin of pareidolia?

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    +1, great question. The only way that it could be better would be a small blockquote from any source explaining the claim for readers not familiar with the term.
    – Borror0
    Commented Mar 25, 2011 at 17:06
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    There is also auditory pareidolia (e.g. hearing ghost voices in white noise; satanic messages when playing a record backward). Also, the "number 23 enigma" is another example of "Apophenia" (the umbrella term). Can conspiracy theories be partly blamed on our (hardwired?) propensity to see connections where there are none?
    – Oliver_C
    Commented Mar 25, 2011 at 22:37
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    What qualifies for not having an evolutionary origin? Commented Dec 5, 2011 at 12:47
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    @David: Maybe if it's in Genesis?
    – Zano
    Commented Dec 5, 2011 at 13:47
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about what causes false beliefs, rather than skeptically examining a specific claim.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Sep 13, 2013 at 2:23

4 Answers 4


Type I errors (false positives), like pareidolia, can indeed be helpful to survival. Mistaking a stick for snake won't do you harm, but mistaking a snake for a stick could mean death.

Here is a talk Dylan Evans gave, titled "Born to Believe". He hypothesizes apophenia (pareidolia) might underlie our tendency to be religious.

And here is a short video where Richard Dawkins talks about B.F. Skinner's superstitious pigeons experiment:

All wild animals have to be kind of natural statisticians, looking for patterns in the apparent randomness of nature when they are looking for food or trying to avoid predators. There are two kinds of mistake they can make: they can either fail to detect pattern when there is some, or they can seem to detect pattern when there isn't any, and that's superstition.

Dylan Evans:

Natural selection has favoured a brain that tends towards type I errors rather than type II errors. It may be better to be superstitious than to miss genuine causal patterns that are there.

Also from Dylan Evans' talk (referencing one of Peter Brugger's studies):

  • Believers in the paranormal are more likely than skeptics to see faces that aren't there

  • Skeptics are more likely to miss real faces (type II error, false negative)

  • L-dopa (dopamine) makes skeptics less skeptical

And sometimes, when a machine (e.g. computer, car, soda machine,...) doesn't work properly people talk to it, or curse/shout at it.

Dylan Evans:

On some level we all know that's silly. But that fact that we so readily do it suggests that even people who are clearly aware that these [machines] are not alive can't help but treat them as if they are, even if it's just as a joke. Which may be due to a more powerful force that underlies our original tendencies to attribute spirits to rivers, mountains and so on.

So while the origin of pareidolia/apophenia is not answered, this phemonenon might indeed be "hardwired" into our brain. I'm very interested in the answers of others on this subject.

On a more humorous note, here is David Mitchell and Robert Webb's answer to "religious pareidolia".

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    I can see here people re-stating the claim (i.e. that there is an evolutionary advantage to tend toward Type I rather than Type II errors). I'm not sure I can see any evidence of the claim though.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Dec 4, 2011 at 11:19
  • The Mitchell and Webb link is now broken, pity.
    – matt_black
    Commented Dec 4, 2011 at 23:55
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    @Oddthinking - I guess it comes from Error Management Theory: ... some errors are more costly in their consequences than others. Evolution should therefore favor an inference system that minimizes, not the total number of errors, but their total costs. Maybe this theory deserves its own question?
    – Oliver_C
    Commented Dec 5, 2011 at 12:40
  • @Matt - I changed the link, should work again.
    – Oliver_C
    Commented Dec 5, 2011 at 12:44
  • L-dopa is a precursor to dopamine and a few other substances. It's not the same thing as dopamine.
    – Christian
    Commented Nov 12, 2012 at 18:28

I do know of evolutionary biologists who have repeated this claim, e.g. Dawkins (in The God Delusion). But he could have repeated Sagan’s idea. The problem with these kinds of ideas is that they are very hard to test empirically.

Evolutionary stories like this go by the term of just-so story: they are very compelling, plausible, probably even true but we have no good way of telling.

Jerry Coyne occasionally talks about research suffering from this fallacy on his blog. For example, here’s his take on the genetic “rape kit” of ovulating women.

The difference between these two examples is of course that the latter has demonstrable weaknesses while the former, as I’ve mentioned, is very compelling. In another example, he talks about why sperm tastes bad – once again, the rationale is actually very compelling, makes sense from an evolutionary advantage point of view, and is probably even true. But there are no predictions that can be tested experimentally.

Unfortunately, a lot of the evolutionary psychology field currently falls into this category which has led a lot of people to conclude that the whole field is bunkum. But that’s throwing the baby out with the bath water.

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    I've got a book about memes that suffers from the same problem: a lot of stories that sound very plausible that add up to a very unsatidfying whole. Commented Mar 30, 2011 at 1:08
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    You are not really answering the question--which is: "Does anyone have any scholarly documentation from an evolutionary biologist that speaks to the origin of pareidolia?"--or if you mean "No, there isn't any", please say so clearly in your answer :-)
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Dec 5, 2011 at 8:23
  • @Sklivvz My answer could be summarised as “yes–ish, but I’m not satistifed with the evidence they give [which is none].” Commented Dec 6, 2011 at 7:20

This phenomenon is just the result of the Agent detection.

I asked two similar questions on cogsci.stackexchange which interested people might like to read:


I think it is mostly a result of "hyperactive agency detection"; this results in "single-cause" reasoning as part of the search for an "agent".


I remember Richard Dawkins mentioning the possible evolutionary benefit of belief in "The God Delusion". It could basically be a necessity for survival. Accepting things without questioning them is essential in life, especially when growing up. Where reasoning falls short, belief can triumph. Why people are inclined to want a explanation, is quite an interesting question! – Steven Jeuris♦ Feb 2 at 20:33

Wolpert argues that our wide range of beliefs, some of which are clearly false, grew out of a uniquely human trait. Alone in the animal world, humans understand cause and effect, and that, he says, led ultimately to the invention of tools, the rapid rise of sophisticated technology, and of course, beliefs. Even the earliest humans understood that many events that shaped their lives resulted from specific causes. Therefore, there must be a cause behind every event.


We want to believe there is a reason for it all, and that leaves us predisposed to believe in some things for which there is little or no evidence. If a certain belief makes sense out of an otherwise senseless event, then it must be true, right?

  • Ok, i Will improve it accordingly when i have time. Thanks.
    – Özgür
    Commented Nov 10, 2012 at 16:56

I don't like to give simple direct answers, mainly because I don't think I have enough certainty to do so, but also because I prefer to offer the data that I had analyzed and then see if the other person came up with a similar conclusion. I think the core of this tendency to anthropomorphize odd shapes of materials is grounded on the making of false-positive errors or "type I errors". But the problem seems to be to answer It is adaptative? In what context? I think Sir Michael Shermer explains it quite eloquently in this debate http://youtu.be/uy_3lAEFOW8 Also, the lucidity of Mr Robert Sapolsky on the magical thinking might be helpful too http://youtu.be/4WwAQqWUkpI In order to understand this subject of "evolution of pareidolia" we must consider the adaptative value of some behaviors, based of course on some interpretations of the world. This behavior it is not only driven/influenced by genetic information, there is a very important aspect we must also consider, which is: the role of culture. How culture benefits some behaviors? or How culture make some behaviors adaptative? There is an interesting theory which I think that will gave you a great insight into this question once you understand it. It is the "Dual inheritance theory". A definition that sums up what is meant by "culture" in DIT is: "Culture is information stored in individuals' brains that is capable of affecting behavior and that got there through social learning." For example, in humans the cultural adoptions of agriculture and dairying have, caused genetic selection for the traits to digest starch and lactose, respectively. About the documentation/references, as far as I know there isn't such "from an evolutionary biologist", I think you must ask it in other terms, regarding to the types of errors of cognition. Anyway, here's some: - Adapted from Stanovich et al. (2008).Stanovich & West (2008). On the failure of cognitive ability to predict myside bias and one-sided thinking biases. Thinking and Reasoning, 14: 129–167 - Adapted from Stanovich et al. (2010). - http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/comm/haselton/webdocs/handbookevpsych.pdf - Richerson & Boyd (2005). Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. University of Chicago Press. http://www.amazon.com/Not-Genes-Alone-Transformed-Evolution/dp/0226712125 - Hull (2000). Science and selection: Essays on biological evolution and the philosophy of science. Cambridge University Press. http://www.amazon.com/Science-Selection-Biological-Evolution-Philosophy/dp/0521644054

I hope you find it useful.

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