Sense-making through science

People are sense-making creatures in a world that does not always make sense. This is a problem – although we prefer our world and environment to be orderly and predictable, and an expanding body of research shows that we do not like randomness and a lack of control over life’s outcomes (Kay, Gaucher, Napier, Callan, & Laurin, 2008; Lerner, 1980), our world and our social environment are far from perfectly orderly and controlled. Life in modern society can be complex and uncertain, and randomness, risk, and unpredictability are never far away. Consider terrorism, climate-change, recession, social unrest, and war— the list could go on and on. There are many examples of societal and natural instability, crisis, and threat that might instill the view that we live in a ‘risk society’ (Beck, 1992) or even in the ‘age of anxiety’ (Twenge, 2000). Threats to our cherished perceptions of order do not necessarily stem from large-scale societal and natural events; they can also be triggered by events in our personal lives, sometimes quite mundane. Consider boarding an airplane, or recall (and try not to get angry) the last time your laptop crashed. Such events also lower our perceptions of control. Likewise, when we unexpectedly get fired or when someone close to us suddenly falls ill, we may be struck by life’s randomness and unpredictability.

(Author Note. The writing of this article was supported by a Niels Stensen Fellowship awarded to the first author.)

People are highly motivated to impose order and causality on a sometimes chaotic world (Kruglanski & Webster, 1996; Landau et al., 2004; Lerner, 1980; Pittman, 1998). Why did something happen, or why did something not take place (see Kray et al., 2010; Norenzayan & Lee, 2010)? Can I, or someone else, predict if an event is likely to reoccur in the future? Given that it is inevitable for people to encounter or experience events that threaten perceptions of order, predictability, and control, it is not surprising that they have developed a wide array of cognitive and motivational strategies that help them to restore these perceptions. This restoration can be domain-specific, that is, consist of an attempt to restore a sense of personal control or reinterpret the threat. Moreover, when such ( domain-specific) restoration is not possible people can compensate by affirming order in a potentially different domain (a process known in the literature as ‘fluid compensation’ or affirmation; see Steele, 1988; Proulx & Inzlicht, in press). In other words, when we lack control or when the world seems to operate in random and unpredictable ways, we can turn to threat compensation strategies that either remove the threat directly by restoring perceptions of control (regulation; Rutjens, van Harreveld, & van der Pligt, in 2013; Rutjens, 2012; see also Ruiter, Abraham, & Kok, 2001) or help us cope by affirming control or order elsewhere (compensation). Indeed, threats to personal control have been found to enhance belief in God (Kay et al., 2008; see also Spilka, Shaver, & Kirkpatrick, 1985), belief in intelligent design (Rutjens, van der Pligt, & van Harreveld, 2010), the endorsement of conspiracies (Whitson & Galinsky, 2008), system defense (Kay et al., 2008), susceptibility to superstitious thinking (Keinan, 2002; Vyse, 1997), stereotyping (Burris & Rempel, 2004), in-group defense (Fritsche, Jonas, & Fankhanel, 2008), and the perception of illusory patterns (Whitson & Galinsky, 2008).

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