Matthew Hutson


Of Jock Straps and Conspiracy Theories

Lacking control increases illusory pattern perception.

Posted Oct 02, 2008

Jim Ohms puts another penny in the pouch of his supporter after each win. Clanging against the hard plastic genital cup, the pennies made a noise as he ran the bases toward the end of a winning season. Glenn Davis would chew the same gum every day during hitting streaks, saving it under his cap. Infielder Julio Gotay always played with a cheese sandwich in his back pocket (he had a big appetite, so there might also have been a measure of practicality here). Wade Boggs ate chicken before every game during his career... Mike Hargrove, former Cleveland Indian first baseman, had so many time consuming elements in his batting ritual that he was known as "the human rain delay."

That's from an essay titled "Baseball Magic" by the anthropologist George Gmelch. As I explained in my article on magical thinking, feeling powerless increases superstition. Brains are pattern-finding organs, and when tossed into an unpredictable environment people will grasp for any straw they can get (maybe if I do A, B will happen.) As Gmelch pointed out, batting and pitching are the most fertile activities for superstition in baseball; the factors differentiating a home run from a foul ball are so hard to master that players irrationally look for other ways to control the situation. And according to a paper in tomorrow's edition of Science, skittery jocks may also be more likely to see faces in clouds, construct conspiracy theories, and make biased investment decisions.

The paper, by Jennifer Whitson of the University of Texas at Austin and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern, ties together leads from several areas of research into a tight argument: lacking control increases illusory pattern perception. According to Whitson, "the main contribution of [the six new studies reported in the paper] is that they connect a lot of different things that were previously thought of as separate and reveal that underneath, the same visceral need for control is affecting all of them."

The first study showed that when people receive arbitrary feedback on a cognitive task—denying them the ability to make sense of the task's requirements—they score higher on the Personal Need for Structure Scale by saying, for example, that they find routines enjoyable. In the second study, subjects who received random feedback saw more images in random visual noise (think TV static) than other subjects did.

For the third experiment, subjects recalled an experience when they either lacked control or had control. Then they read scenarios describing potentially meaningful coincidences—in one, a man stomps his feet three times before a meeting and subsequently has his proposal approved. The people who recalled powerlessness saw stronger connections between behaviors and outcomes in the scenarios, and also said they were more likely to try similar stunts in the future.

In the fourth study, people who recalled a situation where they lacked control were more likely to see nonexistent images in snowy pictures and were also more likely to suspect conspiracies in ambiguous vignettes. (In one story, three local construction companies raise their prices after their owners all spend the same weekend at one bed and breakfast. In another, the protagonist was denied a promotion right after his boss and a workmate exchanged a flurry of emails.)

The fifth experiment showed that describing the stock market as volatile (versus stable) renders people more likely to spot false correlations in reports on company financials—and then make stock investments based on their unfounded conclusions.

Finally, the sixth study showed that feeling good about yourself reduces the frantic grasping for straws. There were three groups. One group recalled not having control, another recalled not having control and then performed a self-affirmation task, and a third group did neither. The first group saw more figures in snowy pictures and perceived more conspiracies than the other groups did. Apparently, increasing self-esteem fosters a sense of control over one's life and reduces the need to seek additional stability in random noise.*

One might ask, What does seeing faces in clouds have to do with being in control? Well, according to the embodied theory of mind, we imbue all things with affordances—qualities that describe how we can act on them. The human organism with all its fancy-pants "theories" about the world is just an elaborate iteration of the single-celled action-reaction simpletons we evolved from. Ultimately, thinking serves doing. (Specifically surviving and reproducing.) So seeing a pattern in the world is useful to us only insofar as it lets us form a plan of action, providing control, or at least a sense thereof.

That last part—"at least a sense therof"—is important. As I describe in my piece on magical thinking, the illusion of control is healthy (within reason), as it inspires confidence and pushes us to go out on a limb and sometimes accomplish great things. On that note, Whitson brought to my attention an anecdote from Miroslav Holub (often attributed to Karl Weick): Lost in the snowy Alps and despondent, a party of troops found a map in their belongings, a discovery that revitalized them and got them home. Back at camp they learned that the map they used was actually of the Pyrenees, not the Alps. Just the sense of control—gained from spotting (arbitrary) correlations between the map and the mountains—saved their lives.

In their paper, Whitson and Galinsky also remark on the utility of increasing security and self-esteem through "psychotherapy, which attempts to give clients a sense of control over their lives to reduce the obsessive compulsive tendencies or sinister attributions engendered by seeing too much meaning and intentions in others' innocuous behaviors." As Whitson told me, she sometimes knocks on wood, and "sometimes there'll be a day when something jarring has happened and I'll walk into a room and people will be laughing, and I think, Oh wait, was that about me?"

Stock traders should also probably start the day doing something they're really good at, just so they don't go making crummy investments on shaky ground.

Future research will explore whether lacking control increases non-illusory pattern perception. Are powerless people better at spotting very subtle patterns that others miss? On a meta-level, Whitson says she and Galinsky joke about how things were chaotic for both of them when they came up with the idea for this research, which may have prompted them to see the connections needed to bring all its parts under one umbrella, or tinfoil hat as it were.

*Groups two and three were not significantly different, and I asked Whitson why the decrease in pattern-spotting due to the decreased need for control that comes from increased self-esteem (got that?) would not be buoyed by the mood boost that also accompanies increased self-esteem. Peter Brugger and others have shown that increasing dopamine (via your favorite stimulant) makes people more likely to spot patterns in noise (aka apophenia). Unfortunately the Science study did not measure or control for mood, but Whitson suggested that perhaps a sense of control isolated from mood effects would have dropped apophenia scores below the levels of the third group but that the happiness pulled them back up to match the third group. Room for further study.

ADDENDUM: Science's embargo on this story lifted at 2pm today. I wrote the post beforehand and posted it right at 2. Our blog site also broke for several minutes at 2. This was the first time I've ever published a story precisely when a press embargo lifts, and *crunch.* Interesting.

J. A. Whitson, A. D. Galinsky (2008). Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception Science, 322 (5898), 115-117 DOI: 10.1126/science.1159845