Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Feeling Out of Control Sparks "Magical Thinking"

October 02, 2008 Feeling out of control sparks magical thinking: Psychology Today journalist Matthew Hutson covers some fascinating experiments just published in this week's Science that found that reducing participants' control increase the tendency for magical thinking and the perception of illusory meaning in random or patternless visual scenes. Hutson covers all six experiments, but here's a sample from his article which should give you the general idea: In the fourth study, people who recalled a situation where they lacked control were more likely to see nonexistent images in snowy pictures and were also more likely to suspect conspiracies in ambiguous vignettes. (In one story, three local construction companies raise their prices after their owners all spend the same weekend at one bed and breakfast. In another, the protagonist was denied a promotion right after his boss and a workmate exchanged a flurry of emails.) The fifth experiment showed that describing the stock market as volatile (versus stable) renders people more likely to spot false correlations in reports on company financials—and then make stock investments based on their unfounded conclusions. Finally, the sixth study showed that feeling good about yourself reduces the frantic grasping for straws. There were three groups. One group recalled not having control, another recalled not having control and then performed a self-affirmation task, and a third group did neither. The first group saw more figures in snowy pictures and perceived more conspiracies than the other groups did. Apparently, increasing self-esteem fosters a sense of control over one's life and reduces the need to seek additional stability in random noise. Two of the 'snowy pictures' are shown on the right. The one on the top is completely random, the other has an embedded picture. This is particularly interesting to me, because one of my own studies I completed with some colleagues in Cardiff also involved getting participants to perceive images in random visual patterns. We did something a little different though, in that we didn't have any hidden images, so every time someone saw something we knew it was illusory. However, we also managed to alter how often people saw the images, but we used electromagnets (a technique called TMS) to alter the function of the temporal lobes which have been previously thought to be involved in the magical thinking spectrum - from everyday examples to diagnosable psychosis. This study was inspired by an earlier study by neuroscientist Peter Brugger, who found that people who professed a belief in ESP ('telepathy') were more likely to see meaningful patterns in visual noise than those that didn't. Both the new study and our study are interesting because they show how this type of magical thinking can be manipulated. However, this new study takes it to a whole new level because it involves a whole range of magical thinking tests (not just the 'snowy patterns') and shows how a number they are subject to the tides of emotion and feelings of being in control. Link to Hutson's excellent write-up.Link to study in Science.Link to DOI entry for same. —Vaughan. Posted at October 2, 2008 10:00 PM
Bah, humbug! This is a very poor extrapolation of experiments covered in much more detail a day or two ago in The Wall Street Journal! The point is not "magical thinking" at all - but I think, personally, that the results show it does have a lot to do with "imagination." Do the two equate? Guess that depends upon your definations for "Magic" and "Imagination." The root for both words is "magus" which, in its basic sense, means "wise man " i.e., one steeped in the knowledge of the wisdom of the ages. Some people say this means occult knowledge. While it may include some knowledge of the occult (as opposed to being an practitioner of occult arts) it is much more than that. I also have some serious bones to pick with the premise of these experiments. Show ANYONE, maybe even some intelligent dogs or that elephant who can paint watercolors, an image of "random snow" and ask them to find an image or images in it and I'll bet you $10 that 99 out of 100 (including the intelligent dogs and the elephant) will find one or more images. I'm no expert, not even a psychology major, but I've read about experiments that report on the well-known phenomenon of subjects wanting to please their testers and so they will go out of their way to "see" or "do" whatever it is that they perceive their testers want them to see or do. Seeing one or more images amidst random chaos does not indicate, to me, a per se relationship to wanting to be in control or seeking to impose a sense of order on perceived disorder. What a bunch of dildo-heads for spouting such nonsense! They evidently have no imaginations whatsoever, and unfortunately, imagination is precisely what "No Child Left Behind" is now busy attempting to stomp out in our latest generation of youth for the sake of "scoring" on dummied-down standardized tests. Lose imagination, become citizens of "1984." Several females in my family have the ability to "see" things that other people can't see. Doesn't mean what we see isn't actually there, it's just that other people don't have the extra something or other to see these things. This ability extends to seeing patterns in so-called randomly generated "snow" pictures and seeing "omens" in patterns of seemingly unconnected occurrences and events that others don't see. How well I still remember as a 7 year old the look on the face of the "tester" who was flashing Rorschach cards before me in the school principal's office as I told him what I saw. What does a child know about "control" or stock market crashes (which is what The Wall Street Journal article related the study to, how people try to make "order" out of the chaos of a stock market crash when fear rules all, by supposedly seeing patterns and significances in totally unrelated bits of information and occurrences that aren't really there). We were born with these abilities or whatever you want to call them, we were raised with them, and to us we're all perfectly normal except perhaps our IQs are about 20 to 30 points higher than "normal." We talk amongst ourselves about what we see and what our aunts saw and what our grandmothers saw - sometimes prescient, sometimes not. You just live with it, it's no big deal. There are a lot of people out there who have these abilities, they just don't talk about them much (usually for very good reasons). According to these experts, this is where "conspiracy theories" come from, and the implication is that such beliefs are, at their core, irrational. Let me tell you darlings, I'm not a conspiracy theory fan, but I've seen enough extra-normal stuff in my 57 years to know there's much more to the reality surrounding us than - to paraphrase badly - ever dreamed of in Heaven and Earth, Horatio. Is this "magical?" I don't think so. I think we're just so out of touch with some of our natural abilities and have so suppressed others in the cause of "rationality" that we've forgotten what it's like to be truly human.

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