Your social science hit of the week.
Together, this group of experiments show that the need to feel in control is so powerful that people will resort to psychological solutions that return the world into a predictable state – pulling patterns from noise and causality from randomness.
The researchers used three tests to connect lack of control with hyperactive pattern recognition (i.e., a tendency to believe in superstition and conspiracies).
* Subjects took a basic symbol-matching test which a reasonable person could either pass or fail. Then they were asked to see a faint image (or no image) in a noisy background. Subjects who failed the image-matching test more often saw an image in pure noise.
* Subjects first recalled a situation when they either had complete control, or they had no control at all. Say, I could compare my time as a commenter versus a blogger. Then the subjects played an investment game where two companies, A and B, had equal positive/negative reviews. However, company A had twice as many total reviews as company B. Control subjects invested in the companies equally. By contrast subjects preconditioned with feelings of helplessness invested heavily in the company with more reports.
* Subjects again pre-visualized situations of control or no-control. Then they evaluated a scenario in which a superstitious person skips the daily ritual (stomping three times before a meeting) and has a bad day at work. Subjects with the pre-conditioned helplessness had a higher chance of concluding that a connection exists between the superstition and the bad day at work.
These experiments do a good job of exposing a flaw – people who feel out of control are more likely to see patterns even when they don’t exist. It is nice that they established the point with several independent tests, however, the next step added a refreshing and rare level of proof. If perceived helplessness causes sub-rational behavior as the group claims then restoring a feeling of control should ‘rescue’ the defect.
When subjects started the experiment with a short questionnaire that reinforced closely-held personal beliefs, a step that makes people feel more in control, the helpless-visualizing group did not believe in conspiracies or see nonexistent images any more often than the other subjects. Ergo the defect (healthy pattern recognition) was rescued by adding back the hypothesized cause (a feeling of control). It would be nice to see this done more often, including in my own field, cell biology.
Anyhow, about peak wingnut theory. Republicans (and Republican bloggers) will spend at least the next two years with about as much political control as a bug in a jar. You can make your own conclusions.