A Visceral Need for Order

From Talk of the Nation and All Things Considered (10.03.08):

New research shows that when people perceive they have no control over a given situation, they are more likely to see illusions, patterns where none exist and even believe in conspiracy theories. The study suggests that people impose imaginary order when no real order can be perceived.

"People see false patterns in all types of data," says Jennifer Whitson, one of the authors of the report, "This suggests that lacking control leads to a visceral need for order — even imaginary order."

Whitson is an assistant professor of management at the McCombs School of Business in the University of Texas-Austin.

Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky

In short, people who felt that the world was beyond their control became so hungry for patterns and connections that their minds started just making them up.

But Whitson also found one way to help people who are feeling powerless to see the world the way it really is. In a different experiment, she asked volunteers who were feeling a lack of control to talk about a personal value that they consider important.

When these people were shown fuzzy, meaningless images, they did not see imaginary objects.

Maybe this could help in real life, Whitson says. When you're feeling powerless, maybe you should stop and think about what you really care about — something you do have control over.