Losing Control Enhances Your SuperSense

It is really difficult these days to get psychology studies published in journals such as “Nature” and “Science.” They tend to be dominated by more material sciences unless of course, you can show a picture of a brain operating whilst someone is thinking. (I am always amazed that people find such images so convincing – I mean we all know thinking takes place in the brain and not your big toe!). Anyway, it is always worth plugging papers in the field of psychology when they appear in such prestigious journals.

This month I was particularly delighted to see a paper in “Science” by  Whitson & Galinsky who demonstrated manipulation of the SuperSense by getting people to remember times when they lacked control.

Very simply, participants had to recall events in their lives when they felt a loss of control. After recalling such an episode, adults were tested on all manner of stimuli where there were ambiguous events (see below).


Do you see a picture in any of these?????

Whitson & Galinsky found adults who experienced a loss of control see more illusory patterns, develop more superstitions, perceive more conspiracies and form illusory correlations in the stock market. Their SuperSense had been stimulated! 

The authors argue that loss of control leads us to become hypersensitive to possible patterns. That’s one of the reasons that stress leads to an increase in supernatural thinking. In the absence of perceived control, people become susceptible to detecting patterns in an effort to regain some sense of organization. No wonder those stock market traders are clutching their rabbit’s feet.


Filed under Research

13 responses to “Losing Control Enhances Your SuperSense

  1. Is it a bad sign that I can see a clear image in three of those fuzzed blocks? (1 is a sailboat, 3 is a couple of running horses, and 4 is a low farmhouse or outbuilding. I can kind of see a tree in 5, but not really well.)

    I am under a lot of stress and I am extremely sleep deprived… but I don’t feel out of control.

    I haven’t started seeing coating my business cards in special oils to bring me more business, nor have I been sacrificing fish to the great lawyer shark in the sky…

  2. brucehood

    Oh Dear… they are all snow!!

    Just kidding… I ‘ll post some harder ones.


  3. Arno

    First is a boat, fourth a tent, fifth is a hand. The second looks like nothing to me, the third is a horse with its stomach missing and the sixth could be interpreted as a knife, but is a collection of unconnected dots and lines.

    Good stuff. I had a brief discussion with a friend of mine about this study, and he was rather annoyed with the fact that it does not add any explanatory value, but just shows a “funny effect.” He was particularly worried whether or not the effect was based on a well-known phenomenon in social psychology: that negative affect leads to a tunnel vision, whereas positive affect leads to bursts of inspiration. Oddly enough, this effect is the exact opposite: when people feel bad, are more likely to see new things than when people feel good.
    These results however, show that it is anything but that (I believe they also manipulated general mood in one of the studies?) and that the effect is much more motivational: in our attempts to retake control over our situation, we become more sensitive to patterns that, when manipulated, might lead us to a sense of control again.

    Personally, I think it adds perfectly with another finding of Galinsky: that being in a position with a loss of control leads to a decrease in our executive functioning. If executive functions are partly about inhibiting certain automatic cognitive processes, then it could be that our lapse in executive functions leads to a failure to inhibit certain cognitive processes which, among things, lead to a perception of patterns in ambiguous data.

    Yep, a true thing of beauty.

  4. Oooh! 5 is a hand!! Thanks Arno, now I can see the hand too.

  5. (In the interest of not junking up your comments section I promise to stop soon.)

    I think 2 may be a fir tree.

  6. Katie

    Some are similar for me: sailboat, nothing, front half of running animal, low building, nothing.

    I rarely actually lose control – I get very angry/depressed but I’ve never experienced what these candidates described. None of these ‘I reached rock bottom, and then I saw the light’ sorts of epiphanies.

    I paint and draw, and I’ve had a lot of people who say that they suddenly became ‘creative’ after a breakdown or tragedy and took up painting, drawing etc. I’ve never understood where they’re coming from, mainly because they seem to align creativity with something otherworldly and ‘healing’. To me, their creativity is in fact better termed therapy and therefore quite different from my creativity, which doesn’t feel supernatural at all (to me anyway). I form pictures in my mind based on some process of parsing actual things that I’ve ‘sensed’ and made significant, which I then reproduce as best I can on canvas or paper. Maybe I’ve been administering therapy to myself all my life without knowing it, but I still don’t see it as supernatural. Just as full of wonder and emotion for me, but not ethereal.

    Sorry, rambled on my own tangent there – very thought-provoking post Bruce!

  7. From reading a fair bit of the loss of control literature relating to superstition I get the feeling that most of them go for the explanation that, rather than actually aiming at real understanding, superstitions are only aimed at getting the feeling of understanding or, to use the ‘control’ language, they are aimed at regaining the feeling of control rather than actual control. I find that theory highly implausible since such fantasy-making in the face of a potentially dangerous situation does not strike me as an evolutionary stable strategy. Some writers, such as Keinan, tend to be very unclear on this difference but a few, such as Felson & Gmelch in their 1979 article, make this difference very clear. The issue seems very important as, depending on which way you go on it, you’ll opt for a cognitive or a motivational explanation of superstitions.

  8. Arno

    I agree with you, Konrad. Personally, I would redo part of their study and check for possible mediating variables. Executive functions come to mind.

  9. Unfortunately your image is not for me as seen from different background education.

  10. brucehood

    Brain or Brian? Your enigmatic comment has me confused. Please explain.

  11. brucehood

    I see that you are Kesington and that you blog on the brain. Apologies for the misnomer. Errr… but Kesington…. where are you getting your neurology information????

  12. Pingback: Beckham’s Bottom is Magical « Bruce M. Hood

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