Feeling Helpless? Find a Pattern

albertaindianScientific American Mind has a thought-provoking short piece on research that finds people are more likely to see patterns that don’t exist when they feel helpless and out of control.  Pattern location is comforting; it creates the sense that we are in control of something, even if that control and the something it’s linked with are illusory.  From the article:

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.

Neurologist Steve Novella at NeuroLogica posted about these studies a few months ago here. He notes that the patterns that receive the most attention are usually visual, but can also be auditory. From his post:

Visually this phenomenon is known as pareidolia – seeing a face in the clouds, or the outline of the virgin Mary in a window stain. There is also auditory pareidolia – hearing words in static or random noise. Some ghost hunters claim electronic voice phenomena (EVP) as evidence for spirits, but they are just listening to hours of recording seeking illusory auditory patterns.

And, of course, then we have perceived patterns that translate into superstitions…

Superstitions have their roots in pattern recognition. A baseball pitcher might notice, for example, that he pitched better than average on a day when he forgot to change his underwear. That’s a pattern. So he doesn’t change his underwear for the next game and also pitches well – the pattern is confirmed. He now is convinced of the fabulous powers of his magical dirty underwear, and he dare not change them lest his pitching suffer. Of course, the magic does not always work, and lucky underwear can go sour and become cursed underwear without notice. This is superstitious thinking – inventing magical rules ad hoc to impose a pattern and explanation on unpredictable events. It is a desperate grasp for control over the uncontrollable.

All of which begs the question — does feeling helpless increase tendencies to see patterns that do exist? 

By the way, so many people thought they saw a grinning demon’s face in the hair behind the ear of Queen Elizabeth on the 1954 Canadian dollar series that it was pulled from circulation to be reprinted.  Do you see it?


More information about the rock formation pattern in the upper right of this post can be found here.


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Filed under About Neuroscience, About Perception

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