They said their findings help explain why baseball players perform elaborate rituals and 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 Prof. Whitson, whose research appears in the journal Science.
She and colleague Adam Galinsky, of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., 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. Then the volunteers had to find patterns. In one task, they were asked to find faint images in grainy patterns of dots. Half of the pictures had images and the others were random dots. While people in both groups correctly spotted the images, the group that felt they lacked control from a previous part of the experiment also "saw" images in 43 per cent of pictures that were not there.
In another experiment, the team asked people to pick stocks based on data that were fairly neutral. Prof. Whitson said people in the study who felt they lacked control were more likely to form strong conclusions about a stock even though there was no real pattern in the data. Given the precarious position Wall Street is in as it awaits a bailout package from the U.S. government, Prof. Galinsky said, traders may start avoiding cracks in the sidewalk or other such rituals.
"They may grasp at any type of pattern that will make them feel better," he said. People often see patterns where none exist in an attempt to give structure and security to unpredictable situations, a new study on loss of control suggests.
For instance, it found the study's participants saw imaginary trends in the stock market in their attempt to control the situation, said University of Texas professor Jennifer Whitson, who conducted the study with Adam Galinsky, a professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "What we found is that when people feel like there is a lack of control — that they are in a more volatile situation — they are more likely to form strong conclusions, even though there is no pattern between the data they see and the companies they evaluate," Whitson said. Although the participants were given the same ratio of positive to negative information about the different companies, those who lacked control chose to invest in companies that did not warrant it, she said.
People often trick themselves into seeing and believing connections that simply don't exist to create order, she said. "The less control people have over their lives, the most likely they are to try to regain control through mental gymnastics," Galinsky said.
Feelings of control are so important to people that a lack of control is inherently threatening, he said. Although some misperceptions can be bad or lead a person astray, they're extremely common and most likely satisfy a deep and enduring psychological need, he said. The psychological need is for control and the ability to minimize uncertainty.