Feeling a lack of control over your life may make you see things that are not there, claims social-psychology professor Adam Galinsky.
Research carried out by Professor Galinsky, 39, which has recently been published in the journal Science, shows that people who lack control and feel uncertain are much more likely to see false patterns in the world and turn to superstitions, rituals and conspiracy theories as a way to deal with complex or chaotic circumstances.
A professor at Northwestern University in Illinois, he tells People: "We found that when people are put in situations where they lacked control, they are much more likely to form superstitious perceptions, see conspiracies and even to see figures that don't exist."
Participants in the study were given the same ratio of positive to negative information about companies on the stock exchange. Those who had less control over their lives chose to invest in firms that did not warrant it, he says.
"In a volatile environment, people were much more likely to form false correlations. This is not unlike the situation in the Second World War, when the Germans were bombing London and there was a clear pattern where people thought that neighbourhoods that weren't targeted were full of Nazi sympathisers, even though statistical analyses show that the bombs fells at random."
He acknowledges that some people believe see conspiracy theories behind the current economic turmoil. "We saw this with 9/11. Some people thought Israel did it. Some people thought America attacked itself. Prejudices are a form of these patterns that people see."
Professor Galinsky has been working on this research for the past two years.
What should we be doing to maintain control in turbulent times? "Reflecting on one's core values can have a tremendous impact on increasing people's general security, which reduces a lot of defensive vibes."
He adds: "It's very hard when looking at pattern of data to know if there's truly a correlation. People often see correlations that aren't there and miss correlations that are. So, relying not on gut instinct, but on some type of mechanism or method when making analytical decisions is crucial. Gut instinct can valuable but in limited circumstances."
Professor Galinsky is currently on a year's sabbatical, teaching at the University of California, Berkeley.