Lack of control seen fueling superstitions

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Lack of control can lead rational people to see patterns even where no true pattern exists, a finding that explains seemingly irrational behavior, U.S. researchers reported on Thursday.

They said their findings help explain why baseball players perform elaborate rituals or stock analysts sometimes see ominous trends in perfectly innocuous data.

The need for structure or understanding leads people to trick themselves into seeing and making connections that do not exist, said Jennifer Whitson of the University of Texas at Austin.

“When we lack control we are going to see and seek out patterns, sometimes even false patterns, to regain our sense of control,” said Whitson, whose research appears in the journal Science.

Baseball players are a prime example.

“Everybody knows the classic superstitious baseball player with their lucky T-shirt and the particular thing they have to do before they step up to the plate,” Whitson said in an audio interview on the Science website.

She and colleague Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, suspected lack of control was at the heart of many rituals, superstitions and conspiracy theories.

To prove it, they conducted a series of experiments in which they manipulated control in different ways -- for instance by asking people to answer a series of questions, then randomly telling half of them they were making mistakes.

Then the volunteers had to find patterns. In one task, they were asked to find faint images in grainy patterns of dots. Half of the pictures had images and the others were random dots.

While people in both groups correctly spotted the images, the group that felt they lacked control from a previous part of the experiment also “saw” images in 43 percent of pictures that were not there.

“We manipulated lack of control and showed the need for structure increased,” Whitson said.

In another experiment, the team asked people to pick stocks based on data that was fairly neutral.

Whitson said people in the study who felt they lacked control were more likely to form strong conclusions about a stock even though there was no real pattern in the data.

“People see false patterns in all types of data, imagining trends in stock markets, seeing faces in static and detecting conspiracies between acquaintances,” Whitson said.

“This suggests that lacking control leads to a visceral need for order -- even imaginary order,” she said.

Given the precarious position Wall Street is in as it awaits a bailout package from Congress, Galinsky said traders may start avoiding cracks in the sidewalk or other such rituals.

“They may grasp at any type of pattern that will make them feel better,” Galinsky said in a telephone interview.

Editing by Maggie Fox and David Wiessler