And when you feel that things are beyond your control? According to a study being published today in Science, you fall prey to what the scientists call "illusory pattern perception": you see "a coherent and meaningful interrelationship among a set of random or unrelated stimuli." Less politely, we might call it seeing things that aren't there, falling victim to conspiracy theories and developing superstitions. The reason, suggest Jennifer Whitson of the University of Texas, Austin, and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University, is that pattern perception compensates for feeling out of control in a sea of forces you do not comprehend. It balances the sense that life is random and restores the sense that you do understand what's going on and might even be able to affect them. It can be more comforting to believe that a vast conspiracy explains, say, the stock market crash than to acknowledge that the financial system is beyond your comprehension, let alone control: conspiracy beliefs, write the scientists, give "causes and motives to events that are more rationally seen as accidents ... [in order to] bring the disturbing vagaries of reality under ... control."
Feeling Powerless? Do I Have a Conspiracy Theory for You