Loss of Control Fuels Superstitions, Rituals, Conspiracy Theories



  • Experiments tested visual pattern recognition within "snowy" images
  • Participants with less sense of control saw more images in random static
  • The unempowered also attributed outcomes to unrelated causes in written stories

Individuals who lack control seek to find and impose order in the world through superstition, rituals and conspiratorial explanations, according to new research from The University of Texas at Austin and published in Science.

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, in collaboration with Adam Galinsky, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Through a series of six experiments, the researchers showed individuals who lacked control were more likely to see images that did not exist, perceive conspiracies and develop superstitions. 

“The less control people have over their lives, the more likely they are to try and regain control through mental gymnastics,” said Galinsky. “Feelings of control are so important to people that a lack of control is inherently threatening. While some misperceptions can be bad or lead one astray, they’re extremely common and most likely satisfy a deep and enduring psychological need.”

According to Whitson and Galinsky, that psychological need is for control, and the ability to minimize uncertainty and predict beneficial courses of action. In situations where one has little control, the researchers proposed that an individual may believe that mysterious, unseen mechanisms are secretly at work. To test their theory, the researchers created a number of situations characterized by lack of control and then measured whether people saw a variety of illusory patterns.

For example, in one experiment individuals were asked to look at “snowy” pictures. Half of the pictures were grainy patterns of random dots, while the other half also contained images like a chair, a boat or the planet Saturn, that were faintly visible against the grainy background. While all people correctly identified 95 percent of the hidden images, the group of people who had felt their control had been eroded in a previous part of the experiment also “saw” images in 43 percent of the pictures that were just random scatterings of dots.

“People see false patterns in all types of data, imagining trends in stock markets, seeing faces in static and detecting conspiracies between acquaintances,” Whitson said. “This suggests that lacking control leads to a visceral need for order—even imaginary order.”

To better understand superstitions, Whitson and Galinsky asked a group of individuals to write about situations they had experienced. Half of them recalled situations in which they had control, while the other half detailed paralyzing instances of a loss of control, like car accidents caused by others or illnesses to friends or family. Following the exercise, all participants read short stories in which significant outcomes, like getting an idea approved at a business meeting, were preceded by unrelated behaviors, such as stomping one’s feet three times before entering that meeting. Participants who had initially written about a situation in which they had no control expressed greater belief in a superstitious connection to the story’s outcome, and were more fearful of what would happen if the superstitious behavior wasn’t properly repeated in the future.

While foot stomping or lucky socks are quirky and usually harmless, the participants in the experiment whose feelings of control had been diminished were more likely to perceive more sinister conspiracies lurking beneath the surface of innocuous situations. For example, when reading about an employee who was passed over for a promotion, the powerless participants tended to believe that private conversations between co-workers and the boss were to blame.

To test whether individuals with diminished power can restore control and realign their perceptions, the researchers asked participants to rate how strongly they believed in certain values (like admiring aesthetic beauty or valuing scientific theory and research). They then asked participants to write about situations in which they were helpless or lacked control. To restore feelings of control afterward, some participants were asked to elaborate on the values they had rated as important. As a comparison, other participants were asked to elaborate on the value they held in lowest esteem.

The results were clear: participants who didn’t have an opportunity to regain feelings of control were more likely to perceive visual images that didn’t exist and to perceive conspiracies in innocent situations, while participants who regained feelings of control by focusing on important personal values were no different from people who never lost their feelings of self-control in the first place.

“It’s exciting—restoring people’s sense of control normalized their perceptions and behavior,” Galinsky said.


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Faculty in this Article

Jennifer Whitson

Assistant Professor of Management McCombs School of Business

Jennifer Whitson received her Ph.D. from Northwestern University in Management and Organizations, and her B.A. from the University of California,...

About The Author

TXE Staff

Staff, Texas Enterprise

The Texas Enterprise staff covers a broad swath of disciplines and interests. Writers, researchers, technicians and artists all contribute to the...


#1 I don't understand how people

I don't understand how people see so differently in an ordinary snowy picture?

#2 The data shows that loss of

The data shows that loss of control leads to increased false positives, but the experiment was not set up to adequately incorrect rejections, since everyone could detect 95% of the patterns in the "snow". If they reran it with less obvious patterns, say that people could on average detect only 50% of the time, it would be possible to test whether increased false positives are accompanied by decreased incorrect rejections, likely due to increased vigilance among those who feel out of control. In the world, detecting a real but subtle plot is likely to be rewarded (by, for instance, continued survival) more than imagining a false one is punished.

#3 This is a fascinating piece

This is a fascinating piece of work. My daughter has a chronic mental illness which comes and goes. When it gets worse, she also becomes more paranoid about the world and people. It seems clear to me that your link between loss of control and increased forms of magical thinking may apply to these people as well. She feels at times very little control over her life, and these are exactly the times when her thinking becomes delusional. Conversely, when she's doing better in general, the paranoia reduces. I have always tended to think of the paranoia as causal, but I now think it may be an effect. I will be trying out some ideas to help her feel more in control the next time it presents.

#4 Mr. Smith just offered a

Mr. Smith just offered a great example of the very human element under investigation in this study. He ostensibly experienced loss of control, thus forced a pattern where such a pattern does not exist. The study hardly creates a formula which one can definitively implicate in any/all situations. It simply offers explanation as to why people's beliefs at times contradict the very logic which they believe them to coincide. I find this study very interesting. Although many people will likely disagree, I interpret the results of this experiment as indirectly suggesting that sacrosanct deities which humanity construct fall into the category of forced patterns. One can hardly deny the innumerable inconsistencies religions pose. Contrived patterns fill a gigantic void-- the terrifying unknowns: God, death, etc.

#5 I think someone here is a

I think someone here is a little paranoid that his opinions are invalidated... This study simply observes a strong correlation between a perceived lack of control and a belief in superstition. Nowhere does it state that conspiracies are not true, or that people experiencing stress are incapable of making logical deductions. Perhaps more attention to comprehensive reading would improve the life of some readers.

#6 to Whitson: so conspiracies

to Whitson: so conspiracies don't exist? like now? JFK/RFK/MLK assassinations? 911 was not a conspiracy? how can you say that people are reaching for answers, when the answers provided, are clearly flawed and lacking? it only takes 2+ people, to conspire. i think you confuse paranoia, with conspiracy. i disagree with your implication that anyone experiencing stress, perceiving conspiracies, is deluded. are you saying we should not be more analytical of curious events? what are they teaching people in college these days? how not to think?

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