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See Inside February/March 2009

Finding Control in Chaos

Feeling helpless leads us to see nonexistent patterns

Even the most laid back among us crave a sense of control, and when we feel helpless we scour our surroundings for anything that will restore predictability. New research shows that when we lack control we don’t simply wait for order to return: we impose it, if only in our own minds, by imagining patterns and trends where none exist.

In six experiments, psychologists Jennifer Whitson of the University of Texas at Austin and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University manipulated subjects’ sense of control. In some trials, they gave participants either random feedback or no feedback at all on a tricky experimental task; in others, they asked participants to recall a situation in which they lacked control or one in which they had full control. Results showed that not having control caused participants to mistakenly see an image in a field of static, to smell conspiracy in other people’s benign behavior, to embrace superstitious beliefs and to perceive nonexistent stock-market trends. Such illusory perceptions evaporated when participants were first denied control but then given an opportunity to write about their most deeply held values, an activity that bolsters psychological security and quells feelings of helplessness.

The authors observe that illusory pattern perception “may not be entirely maladaptive” if by soothing uncertainty and restoring a sense of control, it encourages us to actively confront unpredictable circumstances rather than withdrawing from them. One unanswered question, they add, is whether loss of control also heightens people’s speed or accuracy in detecting patterns that do exist.

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