Monday, November 10, 2008


Controlling Helplessness

A new study by Northwestern University researchers has found that superstitions may arise as a reaction to the feeling of a lack of control which, in turn, causes persons hunt for patterns and meaning from the random events in our everyday lives.

The Chicago group found that making experimental subjects remember a time when they lacked control actually changed the way they viewed the world, and created a temporary need to see patterns where none existed. ...

Modern conspiracy theories may be the most poignant example of the way lack of control can color perceptions and beliefs, said Jennifer Whitson, who co-authored the study with Northwestern professor Adam Galinsky as part of her doctoral thesis at the university's Kellogg School of Management.

For example, a universe of false conspiracy theories cropped up after the terrorist attacks of 2001, including the notion that the U.S. government masterminded the attacks. Whitson said the loss of power that terrorism can inflict on people helps explain the appeal of such theories.

This may also be the source of the often bizarre rituals that baseball players concoct for those parts of the game, such as pitching and hitting, where even the best players fail as often as they succeed. Not that such things are necessarily bad:

Searching for order in a chaotic world can be healthy so long as it does not lead to counterproductive superstitions, the researchers said. Baseball rituals can be calming even if they're irrational, [anthropologist George] Gmelch pointed out.
Which naturally leads to the issue of religion:

Aaron Kay, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo in Canada who has studied the psychological roots of religion, says disorder in the world can foster a need for reassurance in the form of religious belief. But that psychological need does not mean religions are false, he said.

"I think people don't want to believe that events are completely random," said Kay. "Our studies don't suggest in any way that God doesn't exist, but they do point to why the concept was originally attractive to us."
Still, if the study is right, religion's similarity to baseball players who insist on chewing the same gum each day during a hitting streak or Chicago Cubs fans who believe in the billy goat curse must be a source of some stress ... and maybe a sense of a loss of control.

Oh, wait a minute ...

I bet Reggie changed his underwear after that "hit."

Bob Carroll
Not to mention changing an octave or two.
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