STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Every time we go on Amazon or Google, sites like that track the patterns of our behavior - what we search for, what we do with that information - and use that to predict what we will do next and, if possible, profit. Patterns matter, and they're the latest focus of NPR's Invisibilia, which is back with its fourth season. This led NPR's Alix Spiegel to ask, how much do the patterns of your past behavior predict your life?
ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: On paper, Shon Hopwood's life doesn't make a lot of sense, not even to him.
SHON HOPWOOD: I don't have a great excuse as to why I did these things, and everybody always wants that because - I don't know - it, like, closes the circle for people.
SPIEGEL: To the naked eye, it looked like Shon Hopwood was born into a really good pattern. He was born in the neighborly, low-crime community of David City, Neb., to a great Christian family that encouraged self-reliance.
HOPWOOD: My parents basically opened the door in the morning and would say, see you in a few hours. It was a good childhood.
SPIEGEL: Fresh air, loving family, safe community - pretty good patterns. But for some reason, in college, Shon started veering off the graph. He wasn't that interested in school, so dropped out and returned to David City to work. And that was all going fine until one day when his friend asked him out for a drink.
HOPWOOD: And he just asked me. He said, what do you think about robbing a bank? And, you know, most people would've said, no, or that's - what are you talking about? And my response was, yes, that's a great idea.
SPIEGEL: And so Shon's path forked. Now, to be clear, Shon did have second thoughts - had them right up to the moment when he walked into the bank dressed as a handyman.
HOPWOOD: I walk in the bank, and I pull a mask up. And I unzip my coveralls, pull out of .22 rifle and yell, everyone get down. This is a robbery.
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SPIEGEL: After four more bank heists, Shon was caught, sentenced to 12 years in prison, which was bad enough, but what really cut was that a bunch of people in his hometown disowned Shon's completely blameless parents.
HOPWOOD: They have to have some reason for why I did these things because otherwise, it just doesn't compute.
SPIEGEL: They need some pattern in order to make them feel stable.
HOPWOOD: Yeah, to make sense of it all.
SPIEGEL: We need to find a pattern. And when it eludes us, we ache for it. But because we live in the age of computers, our ability to discern patterns has expanded. Today, a computer can scan more data in a minute than you or I could sift in a lifetime, and in that data, see things we could never see - even, we're told, the future.
MATTHEW SALGANIK: Yeah, pretty much, with enough data, everything becomes predictable. That idea definitely exists now. So big tech companies like Google and Facebook have tons and tons of data, and they can make a lot of predictions about what you, as an individual, will do.
SPIEGEL: Matthew Salganik is a professor of sociology at Princeton University. And about two years ago, he decided to stage a massive computer competition. See, what Matt wanted to do was harness the pattern-finding abilities of computers to make predictions about stuff like a child's high school GPA or how well a 15-year-old might be able to persevere in the face of challenge.
SALGANIK: Looking at lots of people and looking at the broader patterns helps us have a fuller understanding of what's possible.
SPIEGEL: After all, if the computers could locate the things that predicted stuff like higher grades, policymakers could design better interventions. So Matt set to work, got this massive trove of data on 5,000 kids who'd been followed from the day that they were born, then made that information available to data geeks across the globe. Four hundred teams were given incredibly detailed information about the kids from birth until the age of 9 and told to predict their grades at age 15.
SALGANIK: We're going to go through the code line by line and...
SPIEGEL: One day last fall, Matt sat down to crunch the numbers, figure out which models had won, were best able to predict the future. But what he found surprised him.
SALGANIK: But is this true?
SPIEGEL: What Matt wanted to see was at least one computer model able to predict with reasonable accuracy the outcomes of each child in the study - the grade point average of each child, how well they stuck to a task. But none of the computer models did as well as Matt expected - none.
SALGANIK: I would say this is not impressive. This is - I think this is sad or disappointing.
SPIEGEL: But was it? Or was that just an accurate representation of how unpredictable individual lives like yours or mine are?
DUNCAN WATTS: That's what we find everywhere.
SPIEGEL: Around the time of Matt's experiment, I met a man named Duncan Watts, who works at Microsoft Research. He's done a ton of prediction studies. And Duncan told me this outcome that Matt found is kind of the outcome.
WATTS: When you're talking about individual outcomes, there's a lot of randomness. There's a lot that cannot be explained. And the other half of this conversation is that people don't like that answer. We like deterministic stories.
SPIEGEL: Like them because they make us feel more secure.
WATTS: If you think that you can predict things, if you think that you can control things, even if you are wrong, it means you get up in the morning, and you feel confident.
SPIEGEL: Duncan believes that being more realistic about what patterns get you is important but hard to pull off because it involves accepting something that feels like a contradiction - that patterns are important and predictive, so you can identify things in the lives of kids that tend to help or hurt them, but you can't say whether those same things will affect any individual kid because randomness has a lot more power than we like to think.
HOPWOOD: Everyone get down. This is a robbery.
SPIEGEL: ...Which brings us back to the unusual trajectory of Shon Hopwood. Shon was checking out books in the prison law library when, one day, a fellow prisoner asked him for help drafting a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. Shon had never studied law but spent two months working on it, then sent it off and basically forgot about it.
HOPWOOD: And one day, I'm walking out to the recreation yard at 6:30. I always went and lifted weights at 6:30 in the morning. And a friend of mine comes running and screaming out of the housing unit. And this being federal prison, my first thought is, what'd I say to this guy yesterday that he wants to come fight me at 6:30 in the morning?
SPIEGEL: The Supreme Court had accepted Shon's appeal. That highly unusual event led to other unusual turns and trajectory. And today, the bank robber is a law professor - proof that no matter how many computers you might have, it just might be impossible to predict where any single life will go. Alix Spiegel, NPR News.
INSKEEP: This prediction is true. Invisibilia's releasing new episodes each Friday on your station or wherever you get your podcasts.
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