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Study Links Tough Times, Superstition

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Study Links Tough Times, Superstition

Researchers asked subjects if they could see images and figures in random noise like this.

The economy has convulsed this week while the government gropes for solutions. In the process, the wealth and well-being of ordinary people have been hostage to the whims of big, unseen forces. A Northwestern University professor found that in times like these, peculiar things happen in people’s brains. His research is out tomorrow in the journal Science.

Today’s consumers have something in common with preindustrial fisherman off Papua New Guinea. Professor Adam Galinsky says in one area, there were two kinds of people: those who fished in the deep sea, and those who fished closer to home in shallow waters.

GALINSKY: The deep sea was rife with uncertainty. There was weather patterns to contend with, sea changes. And those fishermen tended to have a much greater propensity toward rituals than those that fish in the shallow sea.
People seem to rely on rituals and superstition when the world is less predictable. Galinsky teaches ethics at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. He thinks human beings are, at heart, control freaks.

GALINSKY: Control may be the most basic, necessary psychological need that we have.

This turns out to be a timely topic in an era of volatile markets.

SPITZER: Do you feel like you have more or less control, kind of, over your life now than you usually do?
PERSON: Less control. You can’t plan anything now. It’s like throwing in a basket and you just pick out what you’re gonna need, you know.
PERSON: Oh, definitely less control. I mean, I just graduated from college about three years ago. Job market is horrible, and that completely determines all the options that I have.
PERSON: There’s uncertainty about how safe our money is.
PERSON: I don’t even know if I’m actually gonna have any kind of retirement money.
PERSON: There are a lot of factors that I don’t have any control over that are gonna affect me directly. So, less control than I ever had.
PERSON: It’s just a frightening time.

An unruly world can be frightening indeed – so scary, says Galinsky, that we have to invent patterns and stories to make sense of it.

GALINSKY: The current financial crisis I think is a clear demonstration of uncertainty and lack of control. And I think in those cases, people will start to rely on pattern perception, and maybe some hidden, government conspiracy to take away taxpayers’ money.

Galinsky and his collaborator devised an experiment to try out the theory. In a bunch of different ways, they took power away from their subjects. For instance, the researchers would ask them to problem-solve and then give them confusing feedback. Then they tested whether people found patterns where there really weren‘t any – like seeing a picture hidden in a staticky jumble of dots on a page.

GALINSKY: Regardless of how we manipulated lack of control, it always led participants to be more likely to see these false patterns, these illusory patterns. Whether it was superstitions, whether it was conspiracies, whether it was images and figures in random noise.

Stuart Vyse says those conclusions make a lot of sense. He’s the author of “Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition,” as well as a book on consumer debt. He says everything from wartime charms for warding off bombs, to the horoscopes in your morning paper, seem connected to the need for control. And this could be a big week for that sort of thing.

VYSE: I think on Wall Street, the superstitions must be rampant. You know. investors are somewhat superstitious, they wear lucky ties to work … they’re looking for patterns. They’re looking for an edge.

Vyse says superstition and conspiracy theory are deeply rooted in our brains: we are pattern-seekers.

VYSE: It is our great skill. Learning through making connections is what makes it possible for us to do all the many things we do as a species. But we do take it too far, in some cases. We see connections where they’re not there.

Research shows this is a recurring human theme – from those primitive fishermen to investors to baseball fans. Adam Galinsky notes in his paper that the American pastime is an unpredictable sport – and, famously, a hive of superstition. So if the market shocks don‘t have you reaching for your lucky hat this week, the Cubs and Sox probably will.

I’m Gabriel Spitzer, Chicago Public Radio.

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