Study Links Feeling of Powerlessness to Paranoia, Superstition

by VR Sreeraman on Oct 4 2008 12:08 PM

When people feel they have lost control of a situation they are often inclined to use paranoia or superstition as an explanation to establish some control, according to a study published in the journal Science.

"The less control people have over their lives, the more likely they are to try and regain control through mental gymnastics," said Adam Galinsky, a professor of ethics and management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

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

Galinsky and study co-author Jennifer Whitson, a business professor at the University of Texas at Austin, used six experiments in which the test subjects lacked control.

In one experiment the people being tested were asked to look at grainy pictures. Half of the pictures were random dots, while the other half had images barely visible in the grainy background.

While all test subjects identified 95 percent of the hidden images, the group whose feeling of control had been undermined also "saw" images in 43 percent of the pictures that were really random scattered dots.

"People see false patterns in all types of data, imagining trends in stock markets, seeing faces in static, and detecting conspiracies between acquaintances," said Whitson.

"This suggests that lacking control leads to a visceral need for order -- even imaginary order."

The results were clear, according to a summary of the study: test participants who failed to regain a feeling of control "were more likely to perceive visual images that didn't exist and to perceive conspiracies in innocent situations."

However test participants who regained 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 study appears in the October 3 issue of the journal Science.