In college, we had to read about people shown pictures of gum disease. These were photographs of rotten gums and crooked, stained teeth, and the idea was to see how these images would affect the way people cared for their own teeth.
One group was shown mouths only a little rotten. The second group was shown moderately rotten gums. The third group was shown horrible blackened mouths, the gums peeled down, soft and bleeding, the teeth turned brown or missing.
The first study group, they took care of their teeth the same as they always had. The second group, they brushed and flossed a little more. The third group, they just gave up. They stopped brushing and flossing and just waited for their teeth to turn black.
This effect the study called "narcotization."
When the problem looks too big, when we're shown too much reality, we tend to shut down. We become resigned. We fail to take any action because disaster seems so inevitable. We're trapped.
Chuck Palahniuk in the essay Dear Mr. Levin (Stranger than Fiction. 2005)
Study: 'Lack Of Control' Plays With Our Minds
Humans are always looking for patterns in the world around us. Anthropologists say superstitions are most common among people who feel that their lives depend on things that are beyond their control. They point to Pacific islanders who fish out on the open ocean, for example, or baseball pitchers.
A report published Thursday in Science supports a link between feeling a lack of control and believing in illusions and conspiracies.
Report author and researcher Jennifer Whitson, who teaches at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, says she started by thinking about cases in which people saw patterns that weren't really there.
"As kids, you look up in the sky, and you say, 'Oh, that cloud is shaped like a dog, like a hat,'" says Whitson.
Other times, people's illusions have higher stakes — "whether it was vast worldwide conspiracies that did not exist, making superstitious connections or trends in the stock market that didn't exist," she says.
Whitson thought that a reason lots of people see patterns that aren't there might be this lack-of-control feeling. And she devised an experiment to test the idea.
She recruited volunteers and tried to induce in half of them the feeling of powerlessness. One device was a rigged intelligence test, conditioned to make the group feel a lack of control.
"No matter how hard they tried, half the time they were told they were correct, and half the time they were told they were incorrect; there was no correlation with their actual correctness," she says.
In another approach, Whitson asked the volunteers in the lack-of-control group to relive times when they felt powerless; for instance, they were to imagine or remember being in a car accident when they weren't driving.
The remaining volunteers got to experience the opposite: a feeling of control.
Whitson tested them to see whether those who were in a mental state of lacking control were more likely to see patterns where none existed.
In fact, they were.
"We literally found people seeing images in static — they were given pictures that were just pure noise, like static on a television set — and we had those who felt that they lacked control saying that they saw significantly more images," she says.
Listen to the NPR interview with Jennifer Whitson