Case on Coping with Uncertainty

Posted on January 12, 2008


After having been frustrated by reading Keinan’s methodologically adroit but conceptually maladroit papers on the relation between superstition, uncertainty and control, it has been something of a pleasure to turn to a paper by Trevor Case entitled “Coping with Uncertainty: Superstitious Strategies and Secondary Control”. The reason is that Case is particularly careful in how he phrases his claims and the conclusions he draws, and, in particular, because he is careful to make a number of distinctions that are significant in understanding Malinowski’s original insight and that are missing in Keinan.

The central idea in Case is the distinction between primary and secondary control strategies (which he takes from Rothbaum, Weisz and Snyder 1982). Primary control concerns instrumental efforts to change outcomes whereas secondary control strategies are aimed at retaining the feeling of control where actual control is seen as not achievable. Case talks about four kinds of such strategies, which I understand as follows:

  • predictive – trying to predict the outcome even if you can’t control it
  • illusory – construing chance events as due to your personal luck
  • vicarious – attempting to associate with those who have control
  • interpretive – reinterpreting the events to accept them

Superstitious strategies are then understood as illusory control strategies. Having done the groundwork, Case identifies the basic problem with determining whether this is a good theory of superstition:

Overall, the research on uncertainty, stress, and magical thinking suggests that people are motivated to use superstitious strategies when their sense of control over outcomes is undermined. […] However, it is unclear whether superstitious strategies are used in a mistaken attempt to instrumentally affect uncertain or chance-determined outcomes, or simply in an attempt to obtain a feeling of control.

Having identified the problem, Case suggests a way of solving the riddle:

If the latter is the case, and superstitious strategies represent secondary control, then use of such strategies should be independent of belief in the efficacy of such strategies. Conversely, superstitious strategies that are used in a mistaken attempt to gain primary control should be linked to belief in the efficacy of such strategies.

The results he obtains do suggest that people use superstitious strategies even when they do not espouse belief in such strategies, leading him to conclude that superstitions are attempts at secondary control.

While Case’s approach looks reasonable, I do not find myself convinced that it is the right one. The reason is that it seems to me that there is evidence for the view that superstitions are mistaken efforts at primary control. I am thinking in particular of the work done by Kileen. Having said that Case’s paper has given me a lot to think about even while I keep working on the alternative view.