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Lacking control drives false conclusions, conspiracy theories and superstitions

Not Exactly Rocket Science
By Ed Yong
Dec 27, 2008 11:00 PMNov 5, 2019 2:03 AM


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"Control - you must learn control!" These wise words were uttered by no less a sage than Yoda, and while he was talking about telekinetically hoisting spacecraft, having control has another important benefit. It protects a person from spotting false patterns that aren't there, from believing in conspiracies and from developing superstitions.

Control and security are vital parts of our psychological well-being and it goes without saying that losing them can feel depressing or scary. As such, people have strategies for trying to regain a sense control even if it's a tenuous one. Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky from the University of Texas have found that one such strategy is to identify coherent and meaningful relationships between things we observe.

These patterns can help us to make sense of past events and predict future ones, affording us a degree of control over our fates, albeit an indirect one. We can't change the weather, for example, but if we can tell when it's going to rain, we can be prepared. At the more extreme end, conspiracy theories can help the bewildered to make sense of otherwise unconnected events. And explaining random events by invoking superstitions or higher beings can help to bring reality's many possibilities within one's understanding, if not under one's heel.

Whitson and Galinsky demonstrated the link between desiring control and seeing patterns through a set of experiments that used a variety of psychological tricks to induce feelings of insecurity among groups of volunteers. With these tricks, they managed to induce a number of different illusions - increasing the risk of seeing false images, making links between unrelated events, creating conspiracy theories and even accepting superstitious rituals. Superficially, all of these behaviours seem quite different but they all involve seeing patterns where none exist. They have a common theme and now, this study suggests that they have a common motive too.

Losing control

To begin with, they asked students to watch pairs of symbols, one of which represented a specific concept. After ten trials, most could deduce the correct symbol but for some recruits, there was never any concept in the first place - every guess was essentially random and no amount of deduction would help. Without the ability to affect their scores, the recruits became understandably frustrated, but they also became more likely to see images where none existed.

Whitson and Galinsky presented them with pictures of objects that had been digitally doctored to make them "snowy" and grainy. If faint outlines of the image were left, virtually all the students saw it amidst the grain, but if absolutely all traces of the original were removed, students tended to see more images if their earlier efforts to deduce the right symbol were fruitless than if they had paid off.

Next, Whitson and Galinsky asked different students to remember a time when they either were in complete control of a situation or lacked it entirely. Afterwards, they were immersed in role-playing scenarios that involved superstitious beliefs. For example, they had to picture themselves as a marketing executive who always stomps three times before important meetings and has a good track record of getting ideas accepted. On a day when they forgot their foot-stomping ritual, their ideas were ignored.

Sure enough, the volunteers who reminisced about a lack of control were more likely to see a connection between the two events than those whose memories involved complete control. They were also more likely to worry about behaving in the same way in the future. So just thinking about absent control makes people more likely to embrace superstitions.

Of course, the recruits' memories could reflect other feelings besides their degree of control - such situations are often threatening in some way, so perhaps it was a fear of threat that changed their behaviour. To control for this, Whitson and Galinsky added a slight twist to their earlier task - this time, they asked students to remember a situation in which something threatening happened, and in which they either had or lacked control.

Even though all of them had threatening situations on their minds, those who thought about losing control still saw more non-existent patterns. They were more likely to see images in random collections of black and white dots that resembled television static, and they were more likely to buy conspiracy theories. When told stories about good or bad events befalling someone, they were more likely to believe that it was due to the coordinated actions of their conspiratorial peers.

Stocks and interventions

The next experiment used a real-life setting that frequently demands the ability to predict inherently unpredictable events - the stock market. Volunteers read statements about the financial performance of two companies after hearing that the stock market was either stable or volatile. Both companies had twice as many positive statements as negative ones, but company A had twice as many statements overall than company B.

During a stable market, the information gap didn't matter and volunteers were about just as likely to invest in either company. But if volatile conditions were afoot, a mere 25% minority decided to invest in company B and more likely to associate it with the negative information. With less control over the fate of their investments, they were more likely to make a false connection between company B and its negative statements, even though the pros actually outnumbered the cons for both companies.

So a lack of control not only affects our perceptions, but our actions too. What happens if you restore control? Will that reduce one's propensity for seeing false patterns? To find out, Whitson and Galinsky asked volunteers to remember events where they had control or lacked it, and tested their tendency for see shapes in snowy images, and for believing conspiracy theories. This time, however, some of the volunteers were given a chance just before the tasks to complete a questionnaire on a value that was very important to them.

Studies have found that this sort of self-affirming exercise can help to counteract feelings of helplessness of distress, so the duo reasoned that it should go some way toward negating the tendency to see patterns brought on by a lack of control. And that's exactly what happened - compared to volunteers who went straight into the tasks, those who remembered lacking control but had a chance to affirm their closely-held values were less likely to see patterns in snowy images or conspiracies in everyday events. Their behaved in the same way as volunteers who had thought about being in control in the first place.

Together, this group of experiments show that the need to feel in control is so powerful that people will resort to psychological solutions that return the world into a predictable state - pulling patterns from noise and causality from randomness. Whitson and Galinsky acknowledge that each individual study only looked at a small number of people, but the results strengthen each other through their consistency and the fact that they were all statistically significant.

Good or bad?

Obviously, the effect has both good and bad sides that should make for interesting discussions. For a start, an ability to spot patterns isn't necessarily a bad thing. It could be downright beneficial if it ramps up a person's skill at spotting subtle trends that are actually real (although future studies need to test whether this actually happens).

Even spotting false patterns could have psychological benefits if it restores a person's sense of control, increases their confidence or even reduces their risk of depression. Scientists, fond as we are of truth and fact, would typically argue that it's better to get an accurate picture of the world around you. Whitson and Galinsky agree but they also take a pragmatic stance, saying that "it may be at times adaptive [to allow] an individual to psychologically engage with rather than withdraw from their environment."

Of course, there are instances when making false connections can be downright damaging, especially if they're used as the basis of bad, or even fatal, decisions. Imagined pharmaceutical conspiracies or implications drawn about medicines from one-off anecdotes could drive people to embrace fruitless or potentially dangerous forms of alternative treatment. People can avoid taking responsibility for, or psychologically coping with, events in their lives if they ascribe them to higher powers or sinister agencies. And seeing too much meaning in the actions of others could lead to paranoia and severed social ties.

Thankfully, Whitson and Galinsky's work suggests that it's possible to counteract the inclination to see misleading patterns by instilling people with a greater sense of security and control. In their own words, studies like these "hold promise for preventing futile pursuits born of the perception of illusory patterns."

Reference: J. A. Whitson, A. D. Galinsky (2008). Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception Science, 322 (5898), 115-117 DOI: 10.1126/science.1159845

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