What connects superstition, conspiracy theories, and seeing things that aren’t there?

Short answer: they’re all triggered by the sensation that events are running out of your control. Now, it isn’t news that uncertainty and lack of control is linked to superstitious and magical thinking. The pioneering anthropologist Malinowski noted way back in 1925 that Trobriand Islanders who fished in deep waters (where they are exposed to sudden storms) are more superstitious than their fellows who fish in shallow waters:

It is most significant that in the lagoon fishing, where man can rely completely upon his knowledge and skill, magic does not exist, while in the open-sea fishing, full of danger and uncertainty, there is extensive magical ritual to secure safety and good results.

Examples in the modern world are countless – of investment bankers turning to astrology, and sports stars compulsively adopting magical rituals.

But the evidence is mostly observational (and often anecdotal), not experimental. If you make someone feel like they are out of control of events, will that actually make them more superstitious? Or is there something else going on? And what about other phenomena like seeing conspiracies at work when there are none, and seeing patterns in random noise.

New evidence from a study by Jennifer Whitson at the University of Texas and Adam Galinsky at Northwestern University, Illinois, tackles this problem. They did six different, but related, experiments with a common theme: they made some of their subjects feel like they did not have control over events. For example, in some experiments they gave the participants the task of identifying a ‘concept’ based on the symbols that they were shown over ten rounds. Half of them got sensible feedback that allowed them to figure it out. The other half unwittingly received random feedback – so none of it made sense to them. Other set-ups included asking participants to recall a time when they were either in control or had no control over events. And so on.

So what did they find? Well, the essence of it is that people manipulated so that they feel out of control are more likely to:

  • Identify objects in images of random noise where there are none.
  • See cause and effect in situations where two apparently unconnected events occur (such as, a man stamps his feet three times before going into a meeting and is successful in his pitch)
  • See conspiracies in situations which could be either conspiracy or happen stance.
  • And, most pertinently given the current situation in the global markets, see correlations in company data where there are none, and make dodgy financial investments as a result.

Putting all this together, it shows that an important cause of superstition and irrational thinking is placing people in environments where they feel out of control. The lesson for humanists is simple. If we want to create a society free from magical thoughts, then we need to empower people and give them control over their lives. As the authors say:

Despite their surface disparities, seeing figures in noise, forming illusory correlations, creating superstitious rituals, and perceiving conspiracy beliefs all represent the same underlying process: the identification of a coherent and meaningful interrelationship among a set of random or unrelated stimuli … The current research offers insights into how illusory pattern perception driven by a lack of control may be overcome. When individuals were made to feel psychologically secure after lacking control, they were less prone to the perception of illusory patterns … Collectively, the six experiments highlight the importance of having versus lacking control and hold promise for preventing futile pursuits born of the perception of illusory patterns.


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

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