Science : When people feel helpless, superstition flourishes

Monkey Man Allah's words on a brinjal
Urban legend: the Indian "Monkey Man" - Allah's words on a brinjal

If people feel that they lost control they become desperate to make sense of the situation. They perceive patterns that don’t exist and rather grab for any fast and simple explanation - however absurd - than considering that there could be none. This is the result of a study, published in the latest issue of the magazine Science, that sheds new light on the psychology of superstition, urban legends and conspiracy theories.

Management scholar Jennifer Whitson (University of Texas, Austin) and social psychologist Adam Galinsky (Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois) present six experiments involving more than 200 students. Test persons of one group were conditioned into feeling out of control (let's call them o.o.c.) by recalling helpless situations and by doing frustrating exercises with nonsensical rewards and punishments. Those of a second group were conditioned into feeling in full control of the situation (i.f.c.). During the experiments, o.o.c. test persons showed an increased illusionary pattern perception – that means they identified coherent and meaningful interrelationship among a set of unrelated stimuli. They saw for example non-existing objects and faces in 43% of randomly generated images shown to them (scatterings of dots, snowy flurries etc.), which were not seen by the i.f.c. group. An experiment in the 70ies found a similar change of visual perception in parachute jumpers just before they jump.

O.o.c. test persons also showed a tendency to imagine non-existing causal relationships between various actions and following events, suspecting conspiracies behind ambiguous stories they were given to read and believing in superstition. In one of the experiments, the test persons were asked to imagine themselves as successful marketers who suffered a failure after skipping the performance of their customary ritual (stomping three times on the ground before crucial meetings). Those in the o.o.c. group were more likely to believe in superstition, while the others would rather be convinced that this was a mere coincidence.

Previous research already established an increase in superstitious belief during times of economic uncertainty, noted Whitson. In the momentary situation, for example, individual investors may turn more to astrology for guidance than before, she expected. - In situations where people feel only moderately out of control, commented Galinsky, they might turn to quirky but harmless beliefs - wearing lucky socks or knocking on wood. But in times of immense crisis, individuals and societies can turn to behaviour with ruinous consequences: blaming Jews or Arabs for global ills, for example, or declaring ill-conceived wars.

Interestingly, o.o.c. test persons lost the feeling to be out of control as well as the increased illusionary pattern perception after a phase of self-affirmation, during which they were asked to reflect on aspects of their lives they considered important. This immunized them against irrational tendencies and neutralized the differences to those feeling in full control of the situation.