Study Undertakes Psychology of Superstition

June 9, 2009

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People trying to find security in unpredictable situations - such as in the stock market or a business meeting - often see patterns where none exist, a recent study suggests.

Individuals faced with a lack of control will turn to pattern perception, the identification of a coherent and meaningful interrelationship among a set of stimuli, according to a recent study published in the journal Science. The research attempts to explain why the desire to combat uncertainty and maintain control through structure can sometimes be so all consuming that people trick themselves into seeing and believing things that simply do not exist.

The research was done by lead author Jennifer Whitson, an assistant professor at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, and Adam Galinsky, the Morris and Alice Kaplan Professor of Ethics and Decision in Management at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

In a series of six experiments, participants who lacked control were more likely to see images in noise, form illusory correlations in stock market information and even perceive conspiracies and develop superstitions.

In one part of the experiment, the researchers asked a group of subjects a series of questions. Even if the subject got most of the questions correct, they were told they got most of the questions wrong, thus confusing the subjects and making them feel a loss of control.

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

The subjects were also shown two different kinds of "snowy" pictures: Half the set was composed of random dots that didn't make a particular shape; and the other half featured dots that actually contained fairly visible images. While 95 percent of the subjects identified the dots with images, 43 percent saw images in the pictures that were simply random dots. This section of the experiment, along with the data gathered from the rest of the experiment, showed that people feel calmer once they have found some sort of pattern, even if there really wasn't one.

This research may help explain the reason for seeing imaginary trends in the stock market. The researchers manipulated control by describing the stock market environment as either volatile or stable. Although the participants were given the same ratio of positive to negative information about the same two anonymous companies, those in the volatile market overestimated the frequency of negative statements about company B — a mental distortion that influenced the group's subsequent investment decisions. Even though the information about companies A and B was equally positive in equal ratios, the jittery minds of nervous investors deemed company B a riskier bet than it really was.

"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."

In Whitson and Galinsky's study, when asked to read and describe simple stories, the participants whose feelings of control had been diminished were more likely to perceive conspiracies lurking just beneath the surface of innocuous situations. For example, when reading about a worker who was passed over for promotion, the "powerless" people tended to believe that private conversations between co-workers and the boss were to blame.

Participants also read short stories in which significant outcomes, such as getting one's idea approved at a business meeting, were preceded by unrelated behaviors, such as stomping one's feet three times before entering the meeting. People who had initially written about situations in which they had no control expressed greater belief in a superstitious connection between the stories' simple behaviors and the outcomes that followed. Those people were also more afraid of what might happen if the superstitious behavior was not properly repeated in the future.

"You might be wondering if certain superstitious behaviors — such as counting the number of times you tap a ball — are really a sign of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)," WebMD says in The Psychology of Superstition. "People with OCD often have compulsions to do rituals over and over again, often interfering with everyday life.

"While some of the symptoms of OCD can mimic superstitious behavior (and the two aren't mutually exclusive), [Dr. Stuart Vyse, author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition] says most of the evidence would indicate there is no connection between the two," WebMD continues.

Whitson and Galinsky claim the six experiments demonstrate that lack of control motivates pattern perception:

Experiencing a loss of control led participants to desire more structure and to perceive illusory patterns. The need to be and feel in control is so strong that individuals will produce a pattern from noise to return the world to a predictable state.

WebMD explains that "a sense of security and confidence are perhaps the greatest benefits we get emotionally from superstitious thinking or behavior — like carrying an object or wearing an item of clothing that you deem to be lucky."

Interestingly, a study in the Journal of Consumer Research last year offered evidence that consumers are influenced by superstition. The authors found that Taiwanese people were willing to purchase a radio for 888 yuan rather than 777 yuan — nearly 15 percent more money for the same radio — eight being considered a lucky number in that culture. It is estimated that between $800 million and $900 million is lost in business in the United States every Friday the 13th.

Even those who don't think they're superstitious have a reflexive fear of tempting fate. In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Dr. Jane Risen, a professor at the University of Chicago, and her colleague, Dr. Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University argue that an action that tempts fate reflexively calls a negative outcome to mind, which, in turn, makes it seem especially likely to occur. Other experiments by Risen and Gilovich determined that students who believe not doing their reading makes them more likely to be called on in class and that trading away a lottery ticket makes that ticket more likely to win.

Resources

Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception by Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky Science, Oct. 3, 2008

Loss of Control Leads People to Seek Order Through Superstition, Ritual University of Texas at Austin, Oct. 2, 2008

Seeing Is Believing, Unless It Isn't Kellogg Insight (Kellogg School of Management), October 2008

Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb Random House Inc., Oct. 14, 2008 (2 updated edition)

The Psychology of Superstition by Sarah Albert WebMD, 2004

Why People Are Reluctant to Tempt Fate by Jane L. Risen and Thomas Gilovich Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2008

Is Friday the 13th a Reason to Stay in Bed? by Rose Palazzolo ABC News, May 13, 2005

Why Superstition is Logical by John Tierney TierneyLab (The New York Times), May 7, 2008

Conscious and Nonconscious Components of Superstitious Beliefs in Judgment and Decision Making by Thomas Kramer and Lauren Block Journal of Consumer Research, April 2008

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