Whenever people are unable to control and predict their environment, they actively seek to restore feelings of control by behaving and thinking in certain ways.
For example, cognitive research by Legare & Souza (2013) shows that rituals provide an illusion of control that makes the world more comprehensible and predictable.
Participants who were in a “randomness condition” preferred rituals more than a control group. The authors give us this anecdote:
“The Trobrianders rarely relied on rituals when fishing in a reliable and safe lagoon … In contrast, extensive rituals preceded the uncertain and dangerous conditions of deep-sea fishing” (p. 2).
The Trobriand fishermen are not the only ones who use rituals when confronted with uncertainty. Studies have shown that most people (up to 70%) employ similar strategies in relation to exams and athletic competitions (Legare & Souza, 2013).
Another experimental study by Greenaway and colleagues (2013) shows that, when people are manipulated to feel low levels of control, they begin to believe in “irrational” beliefs like spirituality, and by believing in spirituality they regain a sense of control.
Research has shown that families who consistently enact ritual behaviors have children with better self-control than families who do not perform rituals (Vohs et al., 2013). People with a high degree of resilience also seem to do well because of their sense of control.
All in all, people seem to be better off with a sense of control, and this is probably why we are so likely to “make it up” like the above-mentioned studies illustrate.