People 'touch wood' to impose order

New research suggests that the reason why people carry out rituals such as touching wood or wearing a 'lucky' item or some other behaviour, is because they are experiencing a loss of control in their lives.

The researchers at Northwestern University Illinois in the U.S. say these rituals and superstitions and conspiratorial explanations are an attempt to find and impose order on an unruly world.

They have linked the feeling of chaos to how individual perceive events and say the quest for structure or understanding leads people to trick themselves into seeing and believing connections that simply don't exist.

Professor Adam Galinsky and lead author Jennifer Whitson, an assistant professor at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, Austin, by means of a series of six experiments, showed that individuals who lacked control were more likely to see images that did not exist, perceive conspiracies and develop superstitions.

Professor Galinsky says the less control people have over their lives, the more likely they are to try and regain control through mental gymnastics.

Galinsky says feelings of control are so important to people that a lack of control is inherently threatening and while some misperceptions can be bad or lead one astray, they're extremely common and most likely satisfy a deep and enduring psychological need.

According to Whitson, that psychological need is for control, and the ability to minimize uncertainty and predict beneficial courses of action.

The researchers suggest that in situations where someone has little control, an individual may prefer to believe that mysterious, unseen mechanisms are secretly at work.

In order to test this theory, the researchers created a number of situations characterized by lack of control and then measured whether people saw a variety of illusory patterns.

In one experiment individuals were asked to look at "snowy" pictures, half of which were grainy patterns of random dots, while the other half contained images such as a chair, a boat, or the planet Saturn, that were faintly visible against the grainy background.

While all people correctly identified 95% 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% of the pictures that were just random scatterings of dots.

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

In order 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, such as car accidents caused by others or illnesses to friends or family.

Following the exercise, all participants read short stories in which significant outcomes, such as getting an idea approved at a business meeting, were preceded by unrelated behaviours, such as stomping one's feet three times before entering a meeting.

It was found that 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 behaviour was not properly repeated in the future.

The researchers say 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.

In order 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 such as aesthetic beauty or valuing scientific theory and research.

They then asked participants to write about situations in which they were helpless or lacked control and 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 researchers say the results were clear: participants who did not 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.

The research is published in the journal Science.

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