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Out of Control? Make up stuff! October 17, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in science.
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I listened to a fascinating podcast from NPR Science Friday on the way into work today. The segment, titled “When not in control, people imagine order”, describes how people in (stressful) situations out of their control they will come up with reasons for why things are happening around them – even if they aren’t correct. One example used in the broadcast was stamping your feet before going into a meeting. If you do that, the people in the meeting will be more likely to accept and agree with your ideas. Clearly, there can be no external cause-and-effect, but you could see… we all have these little superstitions. How about a base-ball batter.🙂 They noted that military personal in battle environments tend to do the same thing. Fun fact: sales of astrology books increased during the great depression (does anyone know how to see sales of astrology books as a function of time on Amazon?).

As you might imagine, recognizing patterns in what is going on around us is part of our survival programming. If we can make order out of what is going on, we can predict it, and thus we can take advantage of it. Leave meat out? Bear comes around. Hey – lets set a trap! Except, it can go too far – stopping your feet can’t possibly have any effect on the people in the meeting; the best it can do is boost your confidence. But if you knew that perhaps you could take a more direct path to boosting your confidence (shot of tequila!?).

What I really liked about this was that this is what my job is supposed to be. I’m supposed to look at data and come up with patterns to describe the data I see. There are lots of effects that might or might not be relevant. All of us in this field think up patterns where they don’t actually exist. Indeed, one is encouraged to come up with patterns no matter how crazy. The key is that the patterns have to be tested. The stomping feet thing might be based on a one-time accident. But here we would have to invent a double-blind study to test that before declaring the correlation was causal.

The program is worth a listen – it is short, about 20 minutes. And you get to hear someone call in and note that this study can’t really be correct because it implies that everyone who thinks the Kennedy assassination was a conspiracy must be making up a pattern that doesn’t exist because they are under stress. And we all know that conspiracy theory is correct.

Comments»

1. Lisa Smith - October 18, 2008

I would say this is one of those most common characteristics of human nature. Things like religion too, which injects order and cause into situations that leave people otherwise helpless…. like, there are many whose rational intellect may not support certain ideas about god or divine forces, but who still indulge in a certain level of spiritual belief, simply because it makes life more bearable. Like letting themselves off the hook for once and letting those beautiful feelings take over. Just today I was thinking how I’m turning into C.S. Lewis. Meaning, he was a guy who wrote science fiction and kept company with atheists, yet he himself was utterly committed to a belief in a divine universe. I can think of a few possible reasons for such a duality. This point probably needs further explaining to make any sense whatsoever… too much digression…

I think at the end of the day, people just want to feel safe, comfortable and worthwhile, even if it’s just due to some chemical manifestation in their head that leads them to create patterns or even become obsessive-compulsive. I think the bleakest times in life are when these patterns fail to bring the comfort they are supposed to bring. As I get older, I think I’d rather live happily deluded — knowing I am so — than coldly rational. Especially if the power you can leverage from delusions actually leads to empirical results (like the confidence-building foot stomping which maybe makes someone a better businessman [therefore wealthier], or a theory you come up with from data that leads to new realms of scientific application).

P.S. To get the Amazon results, you probably have to work in their finance department!

P.P.S. Patterns and imposed order are a huge part of so many arts too…. music, choreography, poetry… I like how the twentieth century was all about a breakdown in these patterns, and what all this meant about the state of humanity…. chaos…. as always, so much to say, so little time!

2. Lisa Smith - October 18, 2008

Oops, I meant breakdown of these patterns…

3. gordonwatts - October 18, 2008

Yes, I agree with everything you are saying – except the bit about living deluded. Knowing that the foot stomping is building my confidence and that is what makes me better in meetings would mean I could do something more effective to build my confidence rather than foot stomping. If I didn’t understand the connection I might continue to foot stomp and that might help me – but perhaps not as good as if I’d figured out the connection.

But when there isn’t a connection, those patterns can really help. I see it a lot in my kid. She has figured out how the world works. If it doesn’t go that way she insists that we reset and put it back. If we open the car door for her at daycare we are stuck. We have to close it so she can open it. However, opening the car door anywhere else is just fine – or perhaps she will open it.

Much of art plays on our ability to find patterns, indeed. It is the stuff of visual puns!😉

4. Lisa Smith - October 18, 2008

The living deluded part was sort of tangential… it had more to do with my discussion about quality-of-life than the foot-stomping. Plus, I wasn’t trying to say spiritual beliefs are delusions… I’m not one to make that call. Just for the record.🙂

5. gordonwatts - October 18, 2008

Ops, sorry – thought you were talking directly about the post.🙂

Of course, the way this study is done is such that it says only people in situations out of their control tend to make up these sorts of thing. It says nothing about the other way around. For example, some conspiricy theories are correct in the end, it turns out.😉


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