Things are complicated out there. You may or may not be aware that your nervous system filters out the massive amount of data that your senses are exposed to. As a matter of conservation of energy (real and metaphorical) you are attending to very little of your environment based on your history and the current value you have for some segment of it.
Let me frame this for your consideration…
Due to our complexity as humans, when things are not there, we sometimes see things. (No, it is not the 60’s.) What’s more, when things are there in front of us and available for our experience, we don’t see them.
Two Experiments to consider…
1. In a recent paper in Science, Whitson and Galinsky (2008) found when individuals are unable to gain a sense of control objectively they will gain it perceptually through illusory pattern perception meaning they will identify “stuff” among a stimuli in their environment that don’t really exist. They are not hallucinating in the usual sense of the word. They are generating information to provide continuity linking what they can just as is sensory data is generated in sensory deprivation experiments.
Whitson, et.al, empirically found that people generate pattern perceptions to make sense of the events in their environment when they experience lack of control of the environmental events they are experiencing.
Now, consider what that means…
- It means we don’t see the flaws in people we are connected to or that we see the flaws where none exist
- it means that we see a conspiracy from a new boss when we don’t yet exist to the new boss
- it means we identify objects in random noise images where there are none
- it means we see mechanistic cause and effect relationships where no links exist
- it means we see correlations in economic markets in companies we like
- it means we don’t see how our behavior is like the behavior of someone we don’t like
- it means we can’t tell why people like us or dislike us when they do
- it means that we can’t see the flaws in our children as they lie dead with a needle in their arm
- it means that we can be more than one kind of person every day of our lives
- it means that people not like us are suspicious and people like us are allies
Staggering, isn’t it!
Examples of superstitious behavior in the modern world are countless – sports super heroes involved in astrology, learned rituals so complex that someone once referred to a baseball player as “his own seventh inning stretch” due to the time he took to address each pitch. Religion, prayer, sacrificial rituals, appeasements, holidays, traditions, incantations, etc. all come from making relationships where none exist. Gasuntheit!
When you are uncertain about your environment and don’t perceive you have control, know what is going on, etc., it is disconcerting. In terms of how we learn, not perceiving you have control is an aversive stimulus equal to shock, rejection, pain, or other punishers. Faced with uncertainty, lack of control, people look for patterns [ah, the value of search] in their environments to re-establish control. When it is not there empirically, we try to establish it perceptually with vision playing the lead role.
With the dearth of information and conflicting data sets it is a constant challenge to understand what is related and what isn’t. In an election year the conspiracies exist for those that most not understanding why their candidate is losing since they see the relationships between them and the agenda as a citizen. The media, the polls, the moderators, the economy, the Jews, the youth, the women…etc. are all plotting to undo the trailing candidate.
2. The following video is based on research by Simons and Chabris from Indiana University. It is very interesting for several reasons, all of which you’ll see if you FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS OF THE PRESENTER EXACTLY.
After you see it spend some time thinking how that affects what your life is like, how research is done and how the world works. After all that, come back write or respond with what you think the implications are of the research.
The lesson here isn’t simple. If we were to want a society free from magical thoughts, then we need expand the tolerance for people to live in ambiguity in some areas, educate people on how feelings and emotions are the exhaust of perceived contingencies and how the environment comes to control behavior via consequences.
J. A. Whitson, A. D. Galinsky (2008). Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception Science, 322 (5898), 115-117 DOI: 10.1126/science.1159845