I’ve written before about the connection between superstitious thinking and feelings of powerlessness, now there is a study that looked at exactly that. Previous connections have mostly been anecdotal or based on the behaviour of people in the real world. In this study the researchers induced a sense of lack of control in participants and then measured how likely they were to report connections between unrelated events or see patterns in noise.

Subjects were preconditioned in at least two ways to create these feelings, in one scenario they were given a task to complete with the help of feedback from a computer, half of the subjects received meaningful feedback that allowed them to complete the task successfully and the other half received random feedback that left them confused. In another experiment the subjects were asked to relate an experience in their lives, again half were to relate an experience were they were in control and the other half one were they were powerless.

Those subjects that that been preconditioned to simulate powerlessness in their lives were more likely than their confident counterparts to see patterns in pictures of “Snow” and more likely to connect unrelated sequences of events. For example in one experiment the subjects read short stories in which superstitious behaviour such as “Knocking on wood” or stamping three times preceded favourable outcomes such as success at work. These subjects were more likely to see a causal relation between these events and to express fear of what might happen if these behaviours were not repeated in future.

Fortunately the researchers also found that self affirming techniques such as focusing on a positive personal value could restore a sense of control and reduce superstitious and false pattern-seeking behaviour. So next time you feel the need to slip into your lucky underwear before an important meeting, just think about how awesome you are instead. That’s what I do.