Podcast Insight In Person

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You see a chair that is not there. A rhythmic stomping of your feet, you are certain, determines the fate of your career. Office banter masks sinister conspiracies. You feel an urgent need to put everything precisely in its proper place. Might it be time to reserve an afternoon on the $100-an-hour leather of your psychiatrist’s couch? Unzip the straightjacket and breathe easily. You are not (necessarily) schizophrenic, obsessive compulsive, or any other chapter from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. You are just an ill-informed investor in a dicey market, or a fortunate survivor of a hellacious car crash, a first-semester freshman clueless on a college campus, or perhaps a primitive fisherman under the South Pacific sun. Adam Galinsky (Management and Organizations) and former Kellogg doctoral student Jennifer Whitson (University of Texas, Austin) report in the journal Science how even the most normal among us strive, intensely but unconsciously, to find and impose order in our unruly world. This quest for structure can sometimes be so all consuming that we trick ourselves into seeing and believing things that simply do not exist.

“We were interested in people who see the Virgin Mary in water stains, or believe conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination,” said Galinsky, the Morris and Alice Kaplan Professor of Ethics and Decision in Management, who is also a member of the Social Enterprise at Kellogg (SEEK) Program. “These look like different phenomena on the surface, but they share underlying aspects, all finding meaningful and coherent relations among unrelated stimuli. They’re all reducible to the same process.”

Mind, Magic, and Control

Magic, Science, and Religion, written in 1948 by Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, described life among primitive tribes of the Trobriand Islands off the eastern coast of Papua New Guinea. Some tribes fished in deep, uncharted waters far offshore, where violent turns in the weather were a regular threat. Those tribes practiced extensive, fishing-related rituals. But tribes who fished in the shallower, safer waters closer to shore were far less ritualized. Those daring, deep water tribes, as Galinsky put it, perceived meaningful and coherent relations among religious rituals and sea churning tempests, relations that the tools of modern meteorology would be hard pressed to discern.

Said Galinsky, “While some misperceptions can be bad, can lead you astray, they’re extremely common, so they most likely satisfy a deep and enduring psychological need.”

That psychological need, as revealed by decades of research, is for control. Our survival depends on the ability to minimize uncertainty and predict and execute beneficial courses of action. The more control we exercise and the less uncertainty we face, the more likely our choices will lead to safe and rewarding outcomes. But we sometimes fall victim to our finely tuned circuitry—evolved over millennia—to seek and exploit patterns and stability by perceiving relationships and regularity that do not actually exist. Seeking to command situations over which we actually have little control can lead us to believe that mysterious, unseen mechanisms are secretly at work. For example, work in the mid-1990s showed that young adults, overwhelmed by the novel, complex social experience that was their first year as an MBA student, were more likely than their second-year elders to harbor beliefs in conspiracies. Other research showed that when confronted with an unpredicted, unpleasant outcome, we often place blame on some earlier, unassociated event, as anyone who has ever tasted failure because they could not find their lucky socks can attest.

Everything In Its Right Place

“Feelings of control are so important to people that lack of control is inherently threatening. So we looked for examples that hit on lack of control,” said Galinsky, introducing his series of experiments. He and Whitson asked people to look at pairs of simple symbols, like the letter “T” inside a circle, and choose which one fit into a group of similar symbols. Some people received no feedback about the correctness of their choices. But in order to instill feelings of powerlessness and a lack of control, other subjects received feedback that was random. Half of their choices were reported to be incorrect, regardless of the choice that was actually made.

The people were then asked how much they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “I enjoy being spontaneous,” and “I like to have a place for everything and everything in its place,” all of which reflected the need for structure in one’s life. The people who received random feedback on the symbol-selection task, who presumably felt very little control over the task, subsequently reported a greater need for structure in their lives.

After performing the symbol-selection task in a second experiment, individuals were asked to look at “snowy” pictures. Half of the pictures were just grainy patterns of random dots. The other half also contained images, such as a chair, a boat, or the ringed planet Saturn, that were faintly visible against the grainy background. While all people correctly identified about 95 percent of the hidden images, the people who received random feedback on the symbol-selection task, whose feelings of control had been eroded, also “saw” images in 43 percent of the pictures that were actually just random scatterings of dots. This illusion occurred significantly more often than it did among the subjects whose feelings of control were left intact during the symbol-selection task.

“People clearly see false patterns in all types of data,” said Galinsky. Motivated by this finding, he described plans for future research, wondering, “Might they also see patterns that are actually there that other people miss?”

Lack of control instilled a need for order and led to an occasional visual hiccup. But could it explain lucky socks? To better understand superstitions, Galinsky and Whitson had a group of people write about situations they had experienced. Half of them recalled situations in which they had control, while the other half detailed paralyzing instances in which they had no control. They recounted car accidents caused by others, illnesses to friends and family, even a time when they had “taken some drugs and felt that the ceiling fan was angry at them,” recalled Galinsky. They all then read short stories in which significant outcomes, such as getting one’s idea approved at a business meeting, were preceded by unrelated behaviors, such as stomping one’s feet three times before entering the meeting. People who had initially written about situations in which they had no control expressed greater belief in a superstitious connection between the stories’ simple behaviors and the outcomes that followed. Those people were also more afraid of what might happen if the superstitious behavior was not properly repeated in the future.

Galinsky was quick to point out that, “If the belief makes them feel better, more confident, then it serves a purpose, it’s not irrational. For example, there’s data showing that religious people tend to heal more quickly. So whether or not God exists, believing might help you live five years longer.” Pondering possible biological features of this phenomenon, and pointing to future research, Galinsky asked, “If someone is given an opportunity to see a pattern, does that lower physiological stress?”

Foot stomping, lucky socks, and other superstitions are quirky but usually harmless—life’s cotton candy. But what of the oft-destructive tendency to believe in elaborate, sinister conspiracies? When asked to read and describe simple stories, the people whose feelings of control had been diminished were more likely to perceive conspiracies lurking just beneath the surface of innocuous situations. For example, when reading about an employee who was passed over for promotion, the powerless people tended to believe that private conversations between co-workers and the boss were to blame.

Misperceiving Markets

To study how loss of control and subsequent distortions of perception might impact decision making in a business environment, Galinsky and Whitson had a group of people read descriptions of a very stable stock market. “Smooth Sailing Ahead for Investors,” read one headline. Another group read “Rough Seas Ahead for Investors,” and other descriptions of a volatile, unpredictable market. All people were then asked to read comments about two anonymous companies, A and B. Twice as many comments were about company A than about B (24 comments versus 12). But an identical percentage of comments about each company was positive, both companies receiving glowing reviews two thirds of the time. For example, “Company B continues to boost shareholder value.” The remaining third of comments about each company was negative. For example, “Higher costs should continue to crimp company A’s margins.”

When asked to recall how often bad things were written about company B, those in the stable market were nearly 100 percent accurate. Those in the volatile market, however, reported 25 percent more bad news than they actually read. Consistent with several earlier studies, market uncertainties set the stage for unconscious associations between the type of information that was presented less frequently (i.e., negative) and the company that was described less frequently (i.e., B). This mental distortion influenced the group’s subsequent investment decisions. While company B Lack of control instilled a need for order, and led to an occasional visual hiccup. But could it explain lucky socks? attracted investments from 58 percent of those in the stable market, only 25 percent of those in the volatile market put their money on B. Even though the information about companies A and B was equally positive in equal ratios, the jittery minds of nervous investors deemed company B a riskier bet than it was.

Having shown that diminished personal control can influence perception and behavior in a number of different ways, Galinsky and Whitson wanted to learn whether powerless people could have their feelings of control restored, their perceptions brought back into alignment. Earlier research had shown that having people focus on and express their cherished personal values instilled in them enhanced feelings of self empowerment. So they first examined people’s beliefs by asking them to rate how strongly they believed in certain values. For example, people rated how much they considered themselves to be social people with an interest in caring for others, and how much they valued scientific theory and research. The people were then asked to write about situations in which they were helpless, thus compromising their sense of self control. Then, in an effort to restore feelings of self-empowerment, some of the people were asked to elaborate upon the values that they had earlier rated as very important. For example, a person who rated political power and influence most highly was asked questions like “Which type of organization would you rather found, an orchestra or a debating society?” Other people, however, were asked to elaborate on the value that they held in lowest esteem. A person who expressed little value for religion, for example, was asked questions that focused on religion, such as, “Would it be more important for your child to receive training in religion or athletics?”

The results were clear. People who focused on values that they did not hold in high regard and who did not have an opportunity to regain their feelings of self empowerment were more likely to perceive visual images that did not actually exist and to perceive conspiracies in innocent situations. The people who regained feelings of self control by focusing on important personal values were no different from people who never lost their feelings of self control in the first place, who never had to recall experiences of helplessness. Galinsky and Whitson broke people’s self control, then helped put it back together again, fixing perception and behavior in the process.

“The less control people have over their lives, the more likely they are to try and regain control through mental gymnastics,” said Galinsky, summarizing their numerous discoveries. “Aaron Kay at the University of Waterloo has a similar idea—that people believe in a controlling, interventionist God as a form of compensatory control. That makes me confident in our theory and captures the beauty of science, with two groups coming to very similar conclusions from two unique approaches.”