Posted on October 6, 2008 by


Here’s the coolest study I’ve seen recently. The researchers, Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky, found that people who don’t feel in control of their lives are more likely to see patterns where they don’t exist. Apparently the phenomenon reaches across disciplines (with fishermen and students given as examples), and it helps explain why people in certain situations develop superstitions, conspiracy theories, and other interesting life interpretations.

I’ve seen this reflected in my own life (unless, of course, I’m seeing false patterns myself.) As I’ve gotten older and my confidence has increased, my skepticism has increased also. I think back to my teenage and missionary years, when I immediately believed all sorts of strange claims. Of course, that may have less to do with the results of this study and more to do with not having formed effective critical thinking skills. I remember how people would cite “facts”, followed with, “It’s been scientifically proven.” That was good enough for me, and I was always excited for my own opportunities to propogate those same dubious facts on to others.

I pinpoint the birth of my critical awareness to a class I randomly attended with a friend at CSU Monterey Bay. I don’t remember what the class subject was, but I have indelibly fixed in my mind the teacher talking about the “Just Say No” drug prevention program. She said, “Does it really work? Just go online and search for ‘just say no data analysis.’ You don’t know if a program is effective until you review its results.” That was a kind of new concept for me. I mean, up to that point I just figured, “Of course the “Just Say No” program works. It makes sense, it supports my view of the world, and everyone says it works.” It was odd to me to think that I might need some sort of objective data to back up my intuitive judgment of things.

The internet is a wonderful blessing for these sorts of things. First, we have www.snopes.com, which is a good first place to go when confronted with “scientifically proven” facts. Second, we have scholar.google.com, which is even better, because it links you directly to research papers on any topic. With these on hand, anyone who claims, “You can’t expect me to have the data to back my claims up,” is either being unaware or lazy.

Of course, searching for sources can still be an intimidating task. But, if Jennifer Whitson is right, maybe positive affirmations will go further than epistemological lectures in helping to fix it.

Posted in: Science