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updated 10/2/2008 4:31:20 PM ET 2008-10-02T20:31:20

A perfectly healthy human mind can trick itself into seeing things that are not there, and new research has exposed exactly the sort of conditions under which that happens.

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It turns out that the less control a person feels, the more likely they are to see patterns or make connections that don't exist. The good news is there is a way to fortify yourself against this sort of hard-wired self-deception.

"It's true that having control is a big thing for most people," said researcher Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University. Galinsky is a co-author of a paper reporting on new experiments into the matter, which appears in the Oct. 3 issue of the journal Science. "We showed that it's a very significant problem."

Previous research had hinted at the details of the strange human habit, said Galinsky. A study in the 1970s showed how during hard economic times people read more astrology books and columns (astronomy reading was unchanged, for comparison). There is also evidence that UFO sightings ramp up in times of high national stress.

Perceived connections
These phenomena are probably related that found by Galinsky and lead author Jennifer Whitson of the University of Texas, Austin, under controlled conditions in the lab.

Whitson and Galinsky designed six experiments in which some people were made to feel a lack of control and others were not. Then they measured the subjects' perception of images in pictures that contained both hard-to-see patterns or no pattern at all. In another experiment, the researchers tested how people perceive patterns in stock prices.

Overall, the researchers found that the subjects who were made to feel less control perceived significantly more illusory patterns or connections.

"Having a sense of control has a wide variety of adaptive advantages," Whitson told Discovery News. "Not only are people who feel in control less likely to see things that aren't there and end up chasing ghosts, but there are also a wide variety of health and societal benefits."

When people feel in control of a medical procedure, for instance, they've been shown to recover more quickly, Whitson said. When people feel in control they can also endure longer and more intense pain.

"This is the first study I've seen that really ties the lack of control to pattern perception," said Benjamin Radford, a science-based paranormal investigator for the Center for Inquiry and editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. "A lack of control leads a lot of people to superstition."

Rubbing a rabbit's foot, knocking on wood or wearing only a certain "lucky" shirt to a casino are all examples of superstitions that give people a better sense of control, Radford explained, to offer a few harmless examples.

Conspiracy theories and even political exploitation of this quirk in human perception could be more serious. Disproven and illusory political concepts such as the idea that immigration is harmful to the U.S. economy or that Saddam Hussein was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. find fertile ground in minds that are feeling less and less secure, said Galinsky.

Feeling in control
Fortunately, Whitson and Galinsky have also found that when their subjects underwent "self-affirmation" exercises to give them a better sense of control and security, the illusions went away.

"Feeling secure is part and parcel of feeling in control," Whitson explained. "When people can affirm the self, they are less likely to underperform in the face of negative stereotypes, to act defensively or aggressively or prejudicially."

In fact, feeling secure by self-affirmation reduces all sorts of defensive thoughts and behaviors. Even some psychotherapy is based on this idea.

"Give a person a sense of security and control, and defensiveness and obsessiveness melt away," said Whitson.

On the more spectacular UFO, Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster level, however, the bottom line is even more straightforward.

"The take-home message is that just because we perceive something," said Radford, "it doesn't mean it's really there."

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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