There’s a fascinating article over at Psychology Today’s blogs on how people who feel powerless or that they lack control tend to see patterns in chaos and formulate conspiracy theories:
The paper, by Jennifer Whitson of the University of Texas at Austin and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern, ties together leads from several areas of research into a tight argument: lacking control increases illusory pattern perception. According to Whitson, “the main contribution of [the six new studies reported in the paper] is that they connect a lot of different things that were previously thought of as separate and reveal that underneath, the same visceral need for control is affecting all of them.”
The first study showed that when people receive arbitrary feedback on a cognitive task—denying them of the ability to make sense of the task’s requirements—they score higher on the Personal Need for Structure Scale by saying, for example, that they find routines enjoyable. In the second study, subjects who received random feedback saw more images in random visual noise (think TV static) than did other subjects.
For the third experiment, subjects recalled an experience when they either lacked control or had control. Then they read scenarios describing potentially meaningful coincidences—in one, a man stomps his feet three times before a meeting and subsequently has his proposal approved. The people who recalled powerlessness saw stronger connections between behaviors and outcomes in the scenarios, and also said they were more likely to try similar stunts in the future.
Go read the whole thing for the fourth through six experiments. It’s a short article, but the implications are interesting. Matthew Hutson has also written his own article on magical thinking that’s worth a read. It opens with an anecdote about John Lennon’s piano and how it affected people when it went on tour after his death:
On this journey, Lennon assumed the form of a piano, specifically the one on which he composed Imagine. “It gives off his spirit, and what he believed in, and what he preached for many years,” says Caroline True, the tour director and a colleague of the Steinway’s current owner, singer George Michael. Free of velvet ropes, it could be touched or played by anyone. According to Libra LaGrone, whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, “It was like sleeping in your grandpa’s sweatshirt at night. Familiar, beautiful, and personal.”
“I never went anywhere saying this is a magic piano and it’s going to cure your ills,” True says. But she consistently saw even the most skeptical hearts warm to the experience—even in Virginia, where the piano landed just a month after the massacre. “I had no idea an inanimate object could give people so much.”
Maybe you’re not a Beatles fan. Maybe you even hate peace and love. But you are wired to find meaning in the world, a predisposition that leaves you with less control over your beliefs than you may think. Even if you’re a hard-core atheist who walks under ladders and pronounces “new age” like “sewage,” you believe in magic.
Magical thinking springs up everywhere. Some irrational beliefs (Santa Claus?) are passed on to us. But others we find on our own. Survival requires recognizing patterns—night follows day, berries that color will make you ill. And because missing the obvious often hurts more than seeing the imaginary, our skills at inferring connections are overtuned. No one told Wade Boggs that eating chicken before every single game would help his batting average; he decided that on his own, and no one can argue with his success. We look for patterns because we hate surprises and because we love being in control.
It is important that we recognize the truth of our tendency to engage in magical thinking especially when evaluating claims and propositions we’re presented with on a daily basis. The hardest part of being a good skeptic is maintaining that balance between rejecting everything out of hand and tempering our natural inclination toward magical thinking. Pretending we don’t have that tendency is the wrong approach to take.
I engage in a little magical thinking every time I buy a lottery ticket, but my indulgence is relatively harmless as I don’t play often and I rarely spend more than $2 when I do. Some folks give in to that same magical thinking, though, and spend hundreds of dollars on tickets chasing the elusive dream of easy riches. The big difference between us, other than the money being wasted, is that I recognize the magical thinking I’m engaging in and the poor fellow dumping hundreds of dollars into the lottery isn’t.
It’s not easy to resist that line of thought when there’s an outcome you’d really like to see. Which is why folks who claim religion is all about faith in the unseeable still go nuts whenever a crude image of Jesus or the Virgin Mary shows up in some random inanimate object. It’s proof, however flimsy, that the thing the desire most to be real actually is real. I try to maintain some amount of sympathy for folks who are engaging in magical thinking because it’s something we all do from time to time. If we’re lucky we will have developed the skill needed to recognize it when we’re engaging in it.
Another interesting part of the article is the very end in which they say that some magical thinking is beneficial so long as you don’t take it too far:
Magical Thinking: Positive psychology or psychosis lite?
Magical thinking can be plotted on a spectrum, with skeptics at one end and schizophrenics at the other. People who endorse magical ideation, ranging from the innocuous (occasional fear of stepping on sidewalk cracks) to the outlandish (TV broadcasters know when you’re watching), are more likely to have psychosis or develop it later in their lives. People who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder also exhibit elevated levels of paranoia, perceptual disturbances, and magical thinking, particularly “thought-action fusion,” the belief that your negative thoughts can cause harm. These people are compelled to carry out repetitive tasks to counteract their intrusive thoughts about unlocked doors or loved ones getting cancer. But more magical thinking does not necessarily mean more emotional problems—what counts is whether such thinking interferes with everyday functioning.
You wouldn’t want to be at the skeptic end of the spectrum anyway. “To be totally ‘unmagical’ is very unhealthy,” says Peter Brugger, head of neuropsychology at University Hospital Zurich. He has data, for example, strongly linking lack of magical ideation to anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure. “Students who are ‘not magical’ don’t typically enjoy going to parties and so on,” he says. He’s also found that there’s a key chemical involved in magical thinking. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that the brain uses to tag experiences as meaningful, floods the brains of schizophrenics, who see significance in everything, but merely trickles in many depressives, who struggle to find value in everyday life. In one experiment, paranormal believers (who are high in dopamine) were more prone than nonbelievers to spot nonexistent faces when looking at jumbled images and also were less likely to miss the faces when they really were there. Everyone spotted more faces when given dopamine-boosting drugs. Brugger argues that the ability to see patterns and make loose associations enhances creativity and also serves a practical function: “If you’re on the grassland, it’s always better to assume that a tiger is there.”
Also from that last segment is a bit about magical thinking and technology which does a lot to explain why I’m so into gadgets and computers:
Arthur C. Clarke’s assertion, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” comes to full fruition in cyberspace—a realm of avatars and instant messaging. And magical thinking may help us pluck the fruits of digital technology.
The mystical hunches that don’t always make sense in meat-space can make good in the datasphere. Computer viruses act even more like curses than real germs do, taking over computers and making them seem possessed. Icons work as charms that can open windows into new worlds, and simple clicks on buttons or links can have surprising and far-ranging effects. Action at a distance (for instance e-mail) works because everything is connected. In the real world, meaningful coincidences often incite unfounded suspicion about a mystical tinkerer behind the scenes. But with technology, intelligent agents really are pulling the strings—not deities but engineers and programmers. Computer hacks—solutions or tricks that sidestep normal operating procedures—are a form of coding magic. Or, as a geek might say, magic is a form of hacking nature.
Very cool stuff and worth a read.