Feelings of control are important. They are believed to increase self-esteem, optimism and a greater sense of agency. Whenever people are unable to control and predict their environment, they seek to restore such feelings. Indeed, lack of perceived control has been associated with a number of negative psychological states (Legare & Souza, 2013).
New cognitive research by Legare & Souza (2013) shows that rituals may serve as a way of restoring feelings of control, possibly by providing an illusion of control in times of uncertainty.
Rituals may provide an illusion of control that makes the world more comprehensible, certain and predictable. Participants who were in the randomness condition rated rituals as more efficacious than the control group. The authors provide the following example to support this tendency:
“The Trobrianders rarely relied on ritual when fishing in a reliable and safe lagoon … In contrast, extensive ritual preceded the uncertain and dangerous conditions of deep-sea fishing.”
The Trobriand fishermen are not the only ones who use rituals when confronted with uncertainty. Studies have shown that up to 70% of students employ such strategies to assist with performance on exams and athletic competitions.
Feelings of control are so important that people start to detect consistency in random sets of stimuli, when they are primed with feelings of lack of control (Legare & Souza, 2013).