Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Feeling helpless can enhance our magical thinking

Some experiments very relevant to our current economic chaos are reported by Whitson and Galinsky, who show that when we feel out of control, our need to impose order and rationale is strong enough cause us to see patterns where they do not exist, or conspiracies where there are none.
We present six experiments that tested whether lacking control increases illusory pattern perception, which we define as the identification of a coherent and meaningful interrelationship among a set of random or unrelated stimuli. Participants who lacked control were more likely to perceive a variety of illusory patterns, including seeing images in noise, forming illusory correlations in stock market information, perceiving conspiracies, and developing superstitions. Additionally, we demonstrated that increased pattern perception has a motivational basis by measuring the need for structure directly and showing that the causal link between lack of control and illusory pattern perception is reduced by affirming the self. Although these many disparate forms of pattern perception are typically discussed as separate phenomena, the current results suggest that there is a common motive underlying them.

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