People who feel out of control of their lives are more likely to believe in conspiracies

Like you, I know some people who are really hampered by an irrational belief that the people around them are judging them; I've long thought that these beliefs were linked to a sense that their lives were out of their control, and that this turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy -- the more paranoid compulsions they expressed, the more their lives were made worse.

A study by Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky from the University of Texas found a correlation between a belief in superstitions and conspiracies and a sense of helplessness about your own life and your ability to steer it. Their clever experiment goes a long way toward explaining the rise of conspiracies like birtherism and the co-occurrence of the collapse of industry and good waged work for the people who embraced it.

It's a kind of macrocosm of the addict's control freakish lashing out, where the more out of control their life is, the more they seek to control the behavior of others.

So a lack of control not only affects our perceptions, but our actions too. What happens if you restore control? Will that reduce one’s propensity for seeing false patterns? To find out, Whitson and Galinsky asked volunteers to remember events where they had control or lacked it, and tested their tendency for see shapes in snowy images, and for believing conspiracy theories. This time, however, some of the volunteers were given a chance just before the tasks to complete a questionnaire on a value that was very important to them.

Studies have found that this sort of self-affirming exercise can help to counteract feelings of helplessness of distress, so the duo reasoned that it should go some way toward negating the tendency to see patterns brought on by a lack of control. And that’s exactly what happened – compared to volunteers who went straight into the tasks, those who remembered lacking control but had a chance to affirm their closely-held values were less likely to see patterns in snowy images or conspiracies in everyday events. Their behaved in the same way as volunteers who had thought about being in control in the first place.

Together, this group of experiments show that the need to feel in control is so powerful that people will resort to psychological solutions that return the world into a predictable state – pulling patterns from noise and causality from randomness. Whitson and Galinsky acknowledge that each individual study only looked at a small number of people, but the results strengthen each other through their consistency and the fact that they were all statistically significant.

Lacking control drives false conclusions, conspiracy theories and superstitions [Ed Yong/Not Rocket Science]

(Image: 2010 billboard displayed in South Gate, California, Victor Victoria, public domain)

Notable Replies

  1. Ah hah! I knew you were in on it!

  2. This makes sense, but it's good to see some confirmation of it. I like that they put conspiracy belief and superstition basically in one bucket.

    For those who like to be snarky about "religion being the last refuge of the desperate" -- yes, yes it is. Now think about how little control one must have in one's life to be that desperate.

  3. This is true and I wish it would spawn some compassion. When a person has lost control of his life, whether through bad decisions or outside influence, that person is going to look for a reason the lack of control is not his fault. Conspiracy theories are an easy way to defer personal responsibility, and in some cases bolster a sense of exceptionalism.

    For instance, a contractor who can't find work in Salt Lake City might blame LDS Elders for freezing him out. In his mind, a broader conspiracy against non-LDS members is preventing his success. In fact, he might be unsuccessful because he does a poor job marketing his business. Believing there is a conspiracy absolves him of responsibility for his failings.

  4. Without Control, Kaos would take over.

  5. Which reminds me of one of my favorite cartoons:

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