Wednesday, November 2, 2011
A perfectly healthy human mind can trick itself into seeing things that are not there.
It turns out that the less control a person feels, the more likely they are to see patterns or make connections that don't exist. The good news is there is a way to fortify yourself against this sort of hard-wired self-deception.
"It's true that having control is a big thing for most people," said researcher Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University. "We showed that it's a very significant problem."
The researchers found that the subjects who were made to feel less control perceived significantly more illusory patterns or connections.
Having a sense of control has a wide variety of adaptive advantages, not only are people who feel in control less likely to see things that aren't there and end up chasing ghosts.
When people feel in control they can also endure longer and more intense pain.
"This is the first study I've seen that really ties the lack of control to pattern perception," said Benjamin Radford. "A lack of control leads a lot of people to superstition."
Conspiracy theories and even political exploitation of this quirk in human perception could be more serious. "Find fertile ground in minds that are feeling less and less secure" said Galinsky.
Feeling in control has also found when their subjects underwent "self-affirmation" exercises to give them a better sense of control and security, the illusions went away.
"Feeling secure is part and parcel of feeling in control," Whitson explained. "When people can affirm the self, they are less likely to under perform in the face of negative stereotypes, to act defensively or aggressively or prejudicial."
In fact, feeling secure by self-affirmation reduces all sorts of defensive thoughts and behaviors. Even some psychotherapy is based on this idea.
"Give a person a sense of security and control, and defensiveness and obsessives melt away," said Whitson.
"The take-home message is that just because we perceive something," said Redford, "it doesn't mean it's really there."