Feeling Powerless? Do I Have a Conspiracy Theory for You

Control freaks have a bad name, but they shouldn’t. When you feel you have some control over your work, you feel less stress even when the actual task is identical to when someone is standing over you ordering you to finish; when you can control, or even when you just believe (incorrectly) that you can control the duration of painful shocks, they don’t hurt as much. Even when control is out of the question, just knowing what’s in store can be beneficial: when you learn details about colonoscopy, your anxiety drops and you will likely recover more quickly, as a 1999 study in The Lancet showed.

And when you feel that things are beyond your control? Then, according to a study being published today in Science, you fall prey to what the scientists call “illusory pattern perception”: you see “a coherent and meaningful interrelationship among a set of random or unrelated stimuli.” Less politely, we might call it seeing things that aren’t there, falling victim to conspiracy theories and developing superstitions.

The reason, suggest Jennifer Whitson of the University of Texas, Austin, and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University, is that pattern perception compensates for feeling out of control in a sea of forces you do not comprehend. It balances the sense that life is random and restores the sense that you do understand what’s going on and might even be able to affect them. It can be more comforting to believe that a vast conspiracy explains, say, the stock market crash than to acknowledge that the financial system is beyond your comprehension, let alone control: conspiracy beliefs, write the scientists, give “causes and motives to events that are more rationally seen as accidents ... [in order to] bring the disturbing vagaries of reality under ... control.”

The scientists ran six mini-experiments to assess the effect of feeling out of control. They induced a feeling of powerlessness in the participants by having them recall a situation in which they felt out of control, or having them answer questions and telling them that many of their answers were wrong—but with feedback so random, participants felt befuddled, unable to figure out which answer would be scored correct. Having made the participants feel that events were random and beyond their control, the scientists then showed them “snowy” pictures. Half were grainy patterns of dots, while the others contained images of a chair, a boat or Saturn faintly visible against the grainy background. When the images really existed, 95 percent of people identified them. When there was no image, people who had been made to feel as if they had no control over the situation saw images in 43 percent of the pictures. They saw something that wasn't there.

The participants also read scenarios that tapped into superstitious beliefs, such as a story in which someone knocked on wood before or wore lucky socks to an important meeting and then got his proposal approved. The participants were asked whether they thought the superstition had anything to do with that approval. Again, participants manipulated into feeling powerless, feeling that life is random and beyond their control, perceived a stronger connection than those who did not feel so at sea in a storm of random events. “Mere recollection of an experience involving a lack of control increases superstitious perceptions,” conclude the scientists. Similarly, when they read an account of a worker passed over for promotion, participants made to feel powerless tended to blame private conversations between the boss and the unfortunate worker’s competitors for the promotion. Conspiracies everywhere they looked.

As always, you have to be careful about extrapolating from the artificial confines of a lab to the real world, but the findings do agree with earlier work about how feeling powerless affects people. If perceiving patterns, even illusory ones, soothes the helpless feeling of not being in control of a situation, then it’s no wonder people trick themselves into seeing and believing connections that aren’t there. “The less control people have over their lives, the more likely they are to try and regain control through mental gymnastics,” said Galinsky. “Feelings of control are so important to people that a lack of control is inherently threatening.”

The human mind prefers to believe that mysterious, invisible forces are secretly at work rather than that the world is random. Whitson put it this way: “People see false patterns in all types of data, imagining trends in stock markets, seeing faces in static and detecting conspiracies between acquaintances. This suggests that lacking control leads to a visceral need for order, even imaginary order.” Feel free to apply this to current events, starting with the conspiracy that people imagine in the proposed financial bailout.