I recently came across this study from the October 3rd issue of the journal Science. It’s about how decreased control over life circumstances increases “Illusory Pattern Perception,” which is the tendency to see connections or meaningful relationships among random data where no such connections exist–basically, it’s apophenia caused by decreased control.
The “decreased control” part of this equation is what interests me most. Interesting types of apophenia (e.g., pareidolia) are well-established psychological phenomena, but I thought they were simply part of humanity’s evolutionary pattern-seeking penchant. This study seems to indicate that the less control you have over your life (or the more insecure your environment is), the more likely you will be to seek control by inventing patterns to organize your life experiences (e.g., stepping over cracks on the sidewalk).
Illusory Pattern Perception can give you the sensation that you’re doing something to improve your predicament when you would otherwise feel helpless. For example, you might happen to hit all green lights on the way to work when you’re wearing a certain blue shirt. If you also happen to be wearing the blue shirt the next time you miss the red lights, you might recognize the pattern and start wearing the shirt more regularly to promote fast travels. (In case it isn’t obvious, this kind of thing happens all the time in the world of sports.) Once the superstition is formed, every coincidence will play into the existing confirmation bias–and you’re hooked.
What this study shows is that these superstitions develop more easily and readily in environments where people lead less predictable lives with less daily security. Perhaps this is a contributing factor to the higher levels of superstition and religion in areas with lower standards of living? I also found it interesting that when the students who participated in the study were trained to think in self-affirming ways and actively do things to improve their condition, the instances of Illusory Pattern Perception decreased markedly and they stopped seeing patterns that did not exist (e.g., stock patterns or images in television static).