Loss of control fuels rituals, superstition: study

People often see patterns where none exist in an attempt to give structure and security to unpredictable situations, a new study on loss of control suggests.

People often see patterns where none exist in an attempt to give structure and security to unpredictable situations, a new study on loss of control suggests.

People turn to superstitions, rituals and conspiracy theories as a way to deal with complex or chaotic circumstances, according to the study, published in the journal Science.

For instance, it found the study's participants saw imaginary trends in the stock market in their attempt to control the situation, said University of Texas professor Jennifer Whitson, who conducted the study with Adam Galinsky, a professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

"What we found is that when people feel like there is a lack of control — that they are in a more volatile situation — they are more likely to form strong conclusions, even though there is no pattern between the data they see and the companies they evaluate," Whitson said.

Although the participants were given the same ratio of positive to negative information about the different companies, those who lacked control chose to invest in companies that did not warrant it, she said.

People often trick themselves into seeing and believing connections that simply don't exist to create order, she said.

The less control people have over their lives, the most likely they are to try to regain control through mental gymnastics, Galinsky said.

Feelings of control are so important to people that a lack of control is inherently threatening, he said.

Although some misperceptions can be bad or lead a person astray, they're extremely common and most likely satisfy a deep and enduring psychological need, he said.

The psychological need is for control and the ability to minimize uncertainty, Whitson said.