lack of control, illusory patterns, and belief in God

Ok, so there’s the question of whether a higher power exists or not.  I leave that to you.  However, either way, we have a psychological question.  How do we maintain our beliefs in a supernatural plane of existence and make causal attributions to Gods, witches, taboos, superstitions, magic etc. in the absence of physical evidence?

The anthropologist Malinowski (1948)  laid the foundation for one answer when he noted that fishermen in the Trobriand islands had more rituals and taboos when fishing in deep waters where it was more dangerous and unpredictable than when fishing in shallow waters.  Basically, beliefs in the supernatural may emerge out of a desire for control during uncertain times. Several studies in social psychology have argued that a feeling of control is crucial to our well-being, and that priming a fears of death lead to greater supernatural beliefs. 

Though we seem to have a psychological motive, we’re still left w/the question of how we can believe when we lack evidence.  One possibility is that much of our judgment is based on ambiguous information, which might be pushed toward different interpretations by our motives.  In the latest issue of Science, a study has linked feelings of lack of control to illusory pattern recognition.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95345337

In the study, test participants either recalled a past event in which they lacked control or they received random feedback on a recognition task to elicit feelings of lack of control.  Participants then viewed grainy pictures similar to static on a tv and were asked to identify whether or not there was an image embedded in the picture.  Only half of the pictures contained images.  Participants who had been made to feel a lack of control perceived more images where there were none than participants in the control condition.

The p-values weren’t super convincing (ranged from .03 to .09), and I worry that control is a bigger issue among westerners, but the finding is pretty cool nonetheless.  So how bout it,

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