Those who felt powerless were more likely to see patterns where they didn't exist, a recent study found.
Courtesy Educational Testing Service
Researchers used images like this one to test if volunteers accurately saw hidden images (like the anchor embedded in this fuzzy swirl of dots), or if they made up images where none existed.
If you have any money in the stock market, you're experiencing something these days that the human mind doesn't tolerate very well: a sense that the world is unpredictable and beyond your control.
Humans are always looking for patterns in the world around us. Anthropologists say superstitions are most common among people who feel that their lives depend on things that are beyond their control. They point to Pacific islanders who fish out on the open ocean, for example, or baseball pitchers.
A report published Thursday in Science supports a link between feeling a lack of control and believing in illusions and conspiracies.
Report author and researcher Jennifer Whitson, who teaches at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, says she started by thinking about cases in which people saw patterns that weren't really there.
"As kids, you look up in the sky, and you say, 'Oh, that cloud is shaped like a dog, like a hat,'" says Whitson.
Other times, people's illusions have higher stakes — "whether it was vast worldwide conspiracies that did not exist, making superstitious connections or trends in the stock market that didn't exist," she says.
Whitson thought that a reason lots of people see patterns that aren't there might be this lack-of-control feeling. And she devised an experiment to test the idea.
She recruited volunteers and tried to induce in half of them the feeling of powerlessness. One device was a rigged intelligence test, conditioned to make the group feel a lack of control.
"No matter how hard they tried, half the time they were told they were correct, and half the time they were told they were incorrect; there was no correlation with their actual correctness," she says.
In another approach, Whitson asked the volunteers in the lack-of-control group to relive times when they felt powerless; for instance, they were to imagine or remember being in a car accident when they weren't driving.
The remaining volunteers got to experience the opposite: a feeling of control.
And then, Whitson tested them to see whether those who were in a mental state of lacking control were more likely to see patterns where none existed.
In fact, they were.
"We literally found people seeing images in static — they were given pictures that were just pure noise, like static on a television set — and we had those who felt that they lacked control saying that they saw significantly more images," she says.
Then, volunteers were given hypothetical situations, such as going to a meeting but forgetting their normal pre-meeting ritual of stomping their feet. Those feeling a lack of control were more likely to attribute failures during the meeting to not stomping their feet beforehand. Given another hypothetical situation, the powerless volunteers were more likely to feel they didn't get a promotion because someone in the next cubicle was sending lots of e-mails to the boss.
And the powerless group was significantly more worried and superstitious about trying to reverse these patterns in the future. They were definitely going to stomp their feet next time.
In short, people who felt that the world was beyond their control became so hungry for patterns and connections that their minds started just making them up.
But Whitson also found one way to help people who are feeling powerless to see the world the way it really is. In a different experiment, she asked volunteers who were feeling a lack of control to talk about a personal value that they consider important.
When these people were shown fuzzy, meaningless images, they did not see imaginary objects.
Maybe this could help in real life, Whitson says. When you're feeling powerless, maybe you should stop and think about what you really care about — something you do have control over.