When seeing IS believing

October 2, 2008

New research published in the journal Science explains why individuals seek to find and impose order on an unruly world through superstition, rituals and conspiratorial explanations by linking a loss of control to individual perceptions. The research finds that a quest for structure or understanding leads people to trick themselves into seeing and believing connections that simply don't exist.

The research was done by Adam Galinsky, the Morris and Alice Kaplan Professor of Ethics and Decision in Management at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., in collaboration with lead author Jennifer Whitson, an assistant professor at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. Through a series of six experiments, the researchers showed that individuals who lacked control were more likely to see images that did not exist, perceive conspiracies, and develop superstitions.

"The less control people have over their lives, the more likely they are to try and regain control through mental gymnastics," said Galinsky. "Feelings of control are so important to people that a lack of control is inherently threatening. While some misperceptions can be bad or lead one astray, they're extremely common and most likely satisfy a deep and enduring psychological need."

The Need for Control

According to Whitson, that psychological need is for control, and the ability to minimize uncertainty and predict beneficial courses of action. In situations where one has little control, the researchers proposed that an individual may believe that mysterious, unseen mechanisms are secretly at work. To test their theory, the researchers created a number of situations characterized by lack of control and then measured whether people saw a variety of illusory patterns.

For example, in one experiment individuals were asked to look at "snowy" pictures. Half of the pictures were grainy patterns of random dots, while the other half also contained images like a chair, a boat, or the planet Saturn, that were faintly visible against the grainy background. While all people correctly identified 95 percent of the hidden images, the group of people who had felt their control had been eroded in a previous part of the experiment also "saw" images in 43 percent of the pictures that were just random scatterings of dots.

"People see false patterns in all types of data, imagining trends in stock markets, seeing faces in static, and detecting conspiracies between acquaintances. This suggests that lacking control leads to a visceral need for order – even imaginary order," said Whitson.

Explaining Superstitions

To better understand superstitions, Whitson and Galinsky asked a group of individuals to write about situations they had experienced. Half of them recalled situations in which they had control, while the other half detailed paralyzing instances of a loss of control, like car accidents caused by others or illnesses to friends or family. Following the exercise, all participants read short stories in which significant outcomes, like getting an idea approved at a business meeting, were preceded by unrelated behaviors, such as stomping one's feet three times before entering a meeting. Participants who had initially written about a situation in which they had no control expressed greater belief in a superstitious connection to the story's outcome, and were more fearful of what would happen if the superstitious behavior wasn't properly repeated in the future.

While foot stomping or lucky socks are quirky and usually harmless, the participants in the experiment whose feelings of control had been diminished were more likely to perceive more sinister conspiracies lurking beneath the surface of innocuous situations. For example, when reading about an employee who was passed over for a promotion, the powerless participants tended to believe that private conversations between co-workers and the boss were to blame.

Restoring a Sense of Control

To test whether individuals with diminished power can restore control and realign their perceptions, the researchers asked participants to rate how strongly they believed in certain values (like aesthetic beauty or valuing scientific theory and research). They then asked participants to write about situations in which they were helpless or lacked control. To restore feelings of control afterwards, some participants were asked to elaborate on the values they had rated as important. As a comparison, other participants were asked to elaborate on the value they held in lowest esteem.

The results were clear: participants who didn't have an opportunity to regain feelings of control were more likely to perceive visual images that didn't exist and to perceive conspiracies in innocent situations, while participants who regained feelings of control by focusing on important personal values were no different from people who never lost their feelings of self-control in the first place.

"It's exciting - restoring people's sense of control normalized their perceptions and behavior," said Galinsky.

Source: Manning Selvage & Lee

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9 comments

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fuchikoma
4.8 / 5 (5) Oct 02, 2008
I'm just a layman, but I think apophenia could be the cause of most irrational human behaviour in healthy subjects. Humans are absolutely amazing at finding and discerning patterns in things, but the cost for that is seeing a world full of false positives.
ArtyNouveau
not rated yet Oct 02, 2008
Apophenia?
diva4d
not rated yet Oct 03, 2008
Google it
AdseculaScientiae
5 / 5 (1) Oct 03, 2008
Does this not partially explain why Religion is still popular in our world? The coping mechanism for not understanding the slightest of the world (or admitting you don't understand it completely)?
h1ghj3sus
5 / 5 (1) Oct 03, 2008
People tend to be like those around them. They are either forced in that direction through the cultural manipulation or laws. Many people who believe something on faith are irrational and raise their children to be the same way.

Sometimes the best answer is "I don't know" OR "neither AND either are possible". Like this article says, people want control, or as I call it (security / insurance).

Much can be said about this... fear mongering.
D666
5 / 5 (3) Oct 03, 2008
Does this not partially explain why Religion is still popular in our world? The coping mechanism for not understanding the slightest of the world (or admitting you don't understand it completely)?


I think so. There's an additional factor as well -- anthropomorphism. As people evolved intelligence, they did so in an environment where most actions were performed by living things -- lions ate people, deer ran from people, beavers built dams, etc. It's no stretch to ascribe wind, storms, and earthquakes to some unseen living being, and just a short hike from that to animism. Normal human competitiveness will ensure that my thunder-maker can beat up your thunder-maker, and pretty soon these imaginary beings are getting more and more powerful, until they're gods. Add in the also normal human desire for power and influence, and now you have shamans (shamen?) who have a special relationship with these gods. And so it goes. I think special explanations for religions are unnecessary. It's just a result of the same kind of human nature that tells hockey players not to shave come playoff time.
grainger
4 / 5 (1) Oct 03, 2008
"Does this not partially explain why Religion is still popular in our world? The coping mechanism for not understanding the slightest of the world (or admitting you don't understand it completely)?"

Perhaps, but religious people seem to have little difficulty in stating that they do not understand the physical world completely. Another study released by Baylor University found that those who were not religious, whether agnostic or atheist, were far more susceptible to believing in conspiracies, far fetched explanations or decidedly unscientific approaches to health, for example. Religious people were far less likely to accept these sorts of things. http://richarddaw...3138,n,n
Also: http://www.baylor...on=story&story=52815
Velanarris
not rated yet Oct 03, 2008
"Does this not partially explain why Religion is still popular in our world? The coping mechanism for not understanding the slightest of the world (or admitting you don't understand it completely)?"

Perhaps, but religious people seem to have little difficulty in stating that they do not understand the physical world completely. Another study released by Baylor University found that those who were not religious, whether agnostic or atheist, were far more susceptible to believing in conspiracies, far fetched explanations or decidedly unscientific approaches to health, for example. Religious people were far less likely to accept these sorts of things. http://richarddaw...3138,n,n
Also: http://www.baylor...on=story&story=52815
Yes, non religious people are more likely to attempt to apply false science and create non problems to tackle. In place of relying on god they rely on the power of the human race to make change. IE: AGW.
KB6
4.5 / 5 (2) Oct 05, 2008
Skeptical Inquirer (Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, formerly CSICOP) has been tackling this problem for decades, with no end in sight.
I think the reason that non-religious people have a greater susceptibility to far-fetched ideas is simply that they are more open to a variety of ideas and beliefs, and therefore have more opportunity to adopt such strange ideas if their critical thinking and analysis skills are not sufficiently developed. Just because you're an Atheist or Agnostic doesn't mean you're a skeptic.

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