Psychics Boost Believers Sense of Control

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A new study has found that people who believe that psychics can predict the future tend to feel more in control of their lives than those who don’t.

A group of Australian researchers from the University of Queensland led by Katharine Greenaway offered the hypothesis that belief in psychic prediction would be positively correlated with a sense of control over one’s life.

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“If it is possible to predict what the future holds, then one can exert control,” the study reports. “Having insight into what will happen in the future would therefore allow people to control their outcomes in a way that would guarantee personal success and survival.”

Several experiments were done to examine this phenomenon. In one of them, two groups of people were asked to read passages either promoting or disputing the idea that scientists have found evidence of precognitive psychic powers.

Afterwards, each group was asked to rate how much they agreed or disagreed with statements about how much control they feel they have over their lives and circumstances.

Those who read the information confirming the existence of psychic powers agreed more strongly with statements such as “I am in control of my own life” and “My life is determined by my own actions” than those in the other group.

The Psychology of Prediction

What’s behind this psychology of prediction? Humans are a pattern-seeking species, and we constantly look for ways to make sense of the world around us. Many superstitious people, for example, find — or, more accurately, believe they find — ways of knowing and even influencing the future. Gamblers may wear a lucky shirt to a casino, for example, or an athlete might perform a small ritual before a game to assure good luck.

The researchers note that humans are “predisposed toward prediction. We are constantly driven to look forward, envisage the future, and infer what will happen. These cognitive mechanisms serve important functions in enabling survival and reproductive advantage, and also act to reduce psychological uncertainty about the future.”

“Our natural orientation towards prediction can sometimes manifest in extreme ways,” the authors continue, “with some people going so far as to postulate that humans may have developed an ability to predict the future. The multi-million dollar industry of psychic readings, clairvoyance, and astrology testifies to people’s fascination with this idea.”

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This same psychological principle also arises in conspiracy thinking: It’s psychologically comforting for many people to believe that important events, such as the death of Princess Diana, the Sandy Hook school shooting, and the 9/11 attacks, are part of some grand scheme, even if that plan is unknown or unknowable.

The study concluded that their findings “help to explain why interest in the predictive arts is highest in times of threat and uncertainty. It is at these moments that individuals most feel the need to control the course of their lives.”

Think of it this way: If you believe that psychics can predict the future, then that means that, by definition, you believe that the future is both set and knowable. When social stresses such as terrorism and economic depression strike, people look for comfort. Uncertainty is inherently scary for many people, and comfort can be found in many places — even in reassurances by carnival psychics.

The study, “Loss of Control Increases Belief in Precognition and Belief in Precognition Increases Control,” appears in the journal PLoS-One and is available online.

Photo: Tom Grill/Corbis

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