Superstitious? It Could Be Your Lack Of Control

Knowledge is power, my friends! A new study shows that when you lack control, you are more prone to see patterns in random images, or to see conspiracies and be superstitious.

Not long after I became an atheist, some personal stuff happened that made me really realize how little control I had in my life. Namely, I got in a car accident (some kid in his daddy's car hit me while I was sitting at a light). Anyway, I didn't have a god, religion or any other kind of magical fairy tales to pin the streak of bad luck I had. None of it was my fault, but bad stuff happened to me for a while.

I became rather superstitious. Unfortunately it's taken me quite a few years to untangle myself from that crazy woo thinking. I still sometimes knock on wood when I say something bad. But now I remind myself that that is crazy woo thinking and I try to refrain from all superstitious behavior.

Here is a brief of the study:

Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception

Jennifer A. Whitson1* and Adam D. Galinsky2

We present six experiments that tested whether lacking control increases illusory pattern perception, which we define as the identification of a coherent and meaningful interrelationship among a set of random or unrelated stimuli. Participants who lacked control were more likely to perceive a variety of illusory patterns, including seeing images in noise, forming illusory correlations in stock market information, perceiving conspiracies, and developing superstitions. Additionally, we demonstrated that increased pattern perception has a motivational basis by measuring the need for structure directly and showing that the causal link between lack of control and illusory pattern perception is reduced by affirming the self. Although these many disparate forms of pattern perception are typically discussed as separate phenomena, the current results suggest that there is a common motive underlying them.

1 Department of Management, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX 78712, USA.
2 Department of Management and Organizations, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL 60208, USA.

This is amazing because it shows how people who are not in control of things will see patterns that aren't there. For example:

  • If you play a sport that has a lot of chance in it, you're more likely to be superstitious.

  • If you are out of control in your life, you're more likely to see conspiracies.

  • Feel out of control? You might see a pattern in random white noise.

  • Or what about seeing the image of Mary in a stain on your shirt?

  • The stock market might seem like it correlates to astrology.

It's so helpful to know this is how the mind works. The implications are quite large, don't you think? I hope they do more studies on the subject and test the results, etc. But it's a great start.


  1. Makes sense. I lost the religion when I gained more control over my life. I was into religion (witchcraft/buddhism) real deep when I was depressed and having panic attacks. Once my head was clear that's when I became an Atheist.

  2. I was also popping pain pills and xanax like candy.

  3. Yeah, it makes sense to me, too. I guess a lot of people feel like their lives are out of control, huh?

  4. This is a great study and I was pleased to see it was the one I thought it would be when you mentioned it in your latest post. It's one of the central references for my honours thesis, in which I'm looking at the influence of schizotypy and feedback on visual perception.

  5. Sounds interesting! Yes, it's a great study, in my opinion. :)