Lack of control seen fueling superstitions

Thu Oct 2, 2008 3:45pm EDT
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By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Lack of control can lead rational people to see patterns even where no true pattern exists, a finding that explains seemingly irrational behavior, U.S. researchers reported on Thursday.

They said their findings help explain why baseball players perform elaborate rituals or stock analysts sometimes see ominous trends in perfectly innocuous data.

The need for structure or understanding leads people to trick themselves into seeing and making connections that do not exist, said Jennifer Whitson of the University of Texas at Austin.

"When we lack control we are going to see and seek out patterns, sometimes even false patterns, to regain our sense of control," said Whitson, whose research appears in the journal Science.

Baseball players are a prime example.

"Everybody knows the classic superstitious baseball player with their lucky T-shirt and the particular thing they have to do before they step up to the plate," Whitson said in an audio interview on the Science website.

She and colleague Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, suspected lack of control was at the heart of many rituals, superstitions and conspiracy theories.

To prove it, they conducted a series of experiments in which they manipulated control in different ways -- for instance by asking people to answer a series of questions, then randomly telling half of them they were making mistakes.   Continued...