During the 2010 soccer World Cup, Paul the Octopus became a worldwide superstar for correctly “predicting” the winner of all games in the competition. Queensland University researchers have found that people who felt a lack of control in their lives were more likely to believe in the claimed “psychic abilities” of the famous octopus.

Dr Katharine Greenaway decided to conduct an experiment with “psychic” Paul and 40 participants, half of which were induced to feel a sense of high control and the other low control.

She said: “We did this by having half the people recall and write about an incident in their lives over which they had no control and having the other half recall and write about an incident over which they had control.”

Greenaway then asked the participants to describe the extent to which they thought Paul would have predicted all these correct decisions based on chance alone. She discovered that 40% of those in the low-control group believed in Paul’s psychic abilities, compared with only 5% in those in the high control group.

Dr. Greenaway remarked:

“The people with a low sense of control believed Paul must have precognitive ability – in other words, the ability to predict the future. It seems that belief in precognition is one way that people can ‘trick’ themselves to feeling in control in situations they have no control over.”

According to Dr Greenaway, the fact that control is significant to people has long been known, yet her experiment gave insight into the lengths that people would go to in order to keep the feeling of control in their lives.

She commented:

“The bottom line is that people don’t like feeling out of control, so they go through a series of psychological ‘gymnastics’ to help maintain the perception that they are in control of their lives – and it seems to work.”

Dr Greenaway also examined how people “in control” felt when they are exposed to a threatening situation like terrorism or the global financial crisis and discovered that people who felt they had little control in these threatening situations tended to become more hostile and prejudiced towards others, in particular to foreigners.

She explains: “This research highlights how when people feel threatened and out of control they take it out on others in an effort to make themselves feel better.”

The results of Greenaway’s study demonstrated that losing control profoundly affects people’s psychological behavior by causing them to change their individual beliefs and orientations towards others.

Written by Petra Rattue