Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Market gyrations. When people feel a loss of control, their perceptions of events may become unreliable.

This Is Getting Out of Control

California News Correspondent

With the meltdown of the global economy, many people think that their financial future is beyond their control. In such uncertain times, it's probably a good idea to take a deep breath before making any big decisions, because, according to a new study, the mind can play tricks on people when they think they've lost control of a situation.

When life gets chaotic, it's natural to try to figure out what's going on. But sometimes, the desire for an explanation may lead us to perceive patterns that don't exist, says Jennifer Whitson, a management scholar at the University of Texas, Austin. A study conducted in the 1970s, for example, found a correlation between bad stock market performance and an increase in the amount of space newspapers devoted to horoscopes and articles about astrology. Failing to find an explanation for their falling fortunes in the economic data, people apparently started looking to the stars. Another study found that parachute jumpers are more likely to see a nonexistent figure in a picture of random dots and squiggles just before they jump.

Intrigued by such findings, Whitson teamed up with Adam Galinsky, a social psychologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. In one experiment, the researchers asked 41 undergraduates to recall a situation in which they'd lacked control (such as being a passenger in a car accident) and another group to recall a situation in which they'd had full control (such as going into an exam well-prepared). Then the subjects read passages describing an event preceded by an action that may or may not have influenced the event. One passage asked them to imagine that they were successful marketers whose ideas were rejected after they failed to perform their customary ritual of stomping the ground three times before the meeting. The subjects who previously recalled an in-control experience were more likely to write this off as mere coincidence than were those who'd recalled being out of control, Whitson and Galinsky report in tomorrow's issue of Science.

Those in the loss-of-control group were also more likely to see nonexistent objects in fuzzy images that looked like a snowy TV screen and to suspect a conspiracy in ambiguous stories they'd read--about an office worker who was denied a promotion after a flurry of e-mails between his boss and a co-worker, for example. But when these subjects first did a self-affirmation exercise that asked them to reflect on an aspect of their lives they considered to be important, such as helping other people or pursuing political influence, they were no more likely than subjects in the in-control group to see illusory patterns. Whitson says she now plans to follow up to see if the perception of illusory patterns actually contributes to poor decisions.

If so, there may be important lessons for people trying to weather uncertain times, says Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. "This suggests that we're going to exhibit these tendencies at the times when they're most dangerous for us," Ariely says. His advice: Question your intuitions more and consult the experts, whose knowledge and experience may give them a better sense of control.

Posted in Brain & Behavior