For the past year I've been noticing an interesting phenomenon, the "Why can't I do that on purpose?"-effect. This usually happens when I'm just walking by my computer desk or other piece of furniture, and throw whatever object I'm holding on it, in this case, a balled up bit of tin-foil from a piece of chocolate. The ball bounces off an emptied drumstick of chicken, instead of landing on the glass desk immediately.

Fascinated, I try and hit the chicken drumstick again with the balled tin-foil, without success.

"How the hell did I do that by accident?"

There are actually a number of different things on my desk that the balled up bit of tin-foil could have hit to elicit that same reaction from me; the plastic candy wrappers around the chicken drumstick, the fork next to it, anything. However, if I try to hit the chicken drumstick, my reaction to the balled up tin-foil hitting the candy wrapper instead will be "Why didn't I hit the chicken wing?"

In other words, suppose there's a 50% of eliciting reaction A, due to there being 5 objects, for each of which there is a 10% chance of hitting them. If I hit one of them and elicit reaction A, I decrease the probability of re-eliciting reaction A to 10%, because the other 4 objects, if hit, will be disregarded.

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This sounds like simple confirmation bias to me.

The number of times something interesting happens is probably much lower than the number of times something un-interesting happens. But the former are the only ones you notice, because they are interesting.

That was my first thought as well.

My second thought was, "Somebody needs to clean their desk."

Confirmation bias is one ingredient.

The other ingredient is that you don't have a pre-defined set of "cool things". Let's say that if something has a one-in-a-thousand chance of happening, it's pretty cool when it happens. But there could be thousands of such things, even if we choose only the "meaningful" ones (the ones which can leave a psychological impression of "something special happened" on us). So even if each one of them is individually unlikely, the "set of all unlikely things" is actually pretty likely.

But despite "something unlikely" happening rather often, if you happen to observe one unlikely thing and decide to reproduce this specific one, it does not work. The "set of all unlikely things" is likely, but the one specific thing you try to reproduce often remains unlikely despite your trying.

Good point, I guess I got a bit enamored by the discovery. Edited out "The answer is surprisingly simple".


I just rolled a ten sided die and got the only perfect number I could have, 6. Then I rolled it again and got the highest number I could have, 10. Then I got a perfect square, followed by the multiplicative identity.

I just can't seem to roll anything but an interesting number, but I can't reliably roll the same one twice.

I think it's not exactly that there were 5 objects that you could've hit, but when trying to replicate you focused on one. I think it's that you've probably performed a similar action a whole lot of times, and the times nothing interesting happened you didn't go "How uninteresting! Let me replicate!" So even though interesting thing might only happen 1 time in 50 that will be the time you notice.

Good point.

I think part of it is that the first time, you're using system 1 and the second time you think you can take charge of it by using system 2.

Conscious control of muscles and trajectory is likely far worse than the unconscious, the second is an order of magnitude older afterall.

But why would the subconscious even try to hit these things?

On the general subjects of brain getting surprised by things, does anyone have trouble shaking that feeling of having caused something when it's really a coincidence? Like, if you wave your arms and someone's phone rings! And it still feels like you did it even though you didn't? Or some lights go off right as you step on something, and it feels like it was you. I always feel like I need to take a minute because my brain really doesn't want to believe I didn't cause the thing.

A similar feeling is when something falls spontaneously and you still feel like someone must have made that happen, even after checking. Although in reality the object was probably sliding really slowly, or something? I can see how this one might be useful, though.

Lots of people have trouble seeing "I did this and that happened immediately " as not a causal relation.

See every superstition ever.

Even otherwise intelligent people seem to fail at this one.