Illusion of Control

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The illusion of control is the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control events, for instance to feel that they control outcomes that they demonstrably have no influence over. The effect was named by psychologist Ellen Langer and has been replicated in many different contexts.

It is thought to influence gambling behavior and belief in the paranormal. Along with illusory superiority (overestimating positive abilities and underestimating negative qualities) and optimism bias (unrealistic or comparative optimism), the illusion of control is one of the positive illusions, unrealistically favorable attitudes that people have towards themselves or to people that are close to them. Positive illusions are a form of self-deception or self-enhancement that feel good, maintain self-esteem or stave off discomfort at least in the short term.

Psychologist Daniel Wegner argues that an illusion of control over external events underlies belief in psychokinesis, a supposed paranormal ability to move objects directly using the mind. As evidence, Wegner cites a series of experiments on magical thinking in which subjects were induced to think they had influenced external events. In one experiment, subjects watched a basketball player taking a series of free throws. When they were instructed to visualise him making his shots, they felt that they had contributed to his success.

Psychological theorists have consistently emphasized the importance of perceptions of control over life events. One of the earliest instances of this is when Austrian psychotherapist Alfred Adler argued that people strive for proficiency in their lives. His predecessor Fritz Heider later proposed that humans have a strong motive to control their environment and a basic competence motive that people satisfy by exerting control. Bernard Weiner, an attribution theorist studying the process by which individuals explain the causes of behavior and events, modified his original theory of achievement motivation to include a controllability dimension. Harold Kelley a social psychologist at UCLA then argued that people’s failure to detect noncontingencies may result in their attributing uncontrollable outcomes to personal causes. Positive psychology, a recent branch of psychology concerned with positive experiences argues that the sense of control, the illusion that one can exercise personal choice, has a definite and a positive role in sustaining life. Positive illusions, including the illusion of control, may in fact foster mental health.

The illusion is more common in familiar situations, and in situations where the person knows the desired outcome. Feedback that emphasizes success rather than failure can increase the effect, while feedback that emphasizes failure can decrease or reverse the effect. The illusion is weaker for depressed individuals and is stronger when individuals have an emotional need to control the outcome. The illusion is strengthened by stressful and competitive situations, including financial trading. Though people are likely to overestimate their control when the situations are heavily chance-determined, they also tend to underestimate their control when they actually have it, which runs contrary to some theories of the illusion and its adaptiveness. People also showed a higher illusion of control when they were allowed to become familiar with a task through practice trials, could make their choice before the event happens (e.g. throwing dice), or could make their choice rather than have it made for them with the same odds. People are more likely to perceive control when they have more answers right at the beginning than at the end, even when all players end up with the same number of correct answers.

The illusion might arise because people lack direct introspective insight into whether they are in control of events. This has been called the introspection illusion (a cognitive bias in which people wrongly think they have direct insight into the origins of their mental states, while treating others’ introspections as unreliable). Instead they may judge their degree of control by a process that is often unreliable. As a result, they see themselves as responsible for events when there is little or no causal link. In one study, college students were in a virtual reality setting to treat a fear of heights using an elevator. Those who were told that they had control (yet had none) felt as though they had as much control as those who actually did have control over the elevator. Those who were led to believe they did not have control said they felt as though they had little control.

At times, people attempt to gain control by transferring responsibility to more capable or ‘luckier’ others to act for them. By forfeiting direct control, it is perceived to be a valid way of maximizing outcomes. This illusion of control by proxy is a significant theoretical extension of the traditional illusion of control model. People will of course give up control if another person is thought to have more knowledge or skill in areas such as medicine where actual skill and knowledge are involved. In cases like these it is entirely rational to give up responsibility to people such as doctors. However, when it comes to events of pure chance, allowing another to make decisions (or gamble) on one’s behalf, because they are seen as luckier is not rational and would go against people’s well-documented desire for control in uncontrollable situations. However, it does seem plausible since people generally believe that they can possess luck and employ it to advantage in games of chance, and it is not a far leap that others may also be seen as lucky and able to control uncontrollable events.

For example, suppose a lottery pool at a company decides on who picks the numbers and buys the tickets based on the wins and losses of each member. The member with the best record becomes the representative until they accumulate a certain number of losses and then a new representative is picked based on wins and losses. Even though no member is truly better than the other and it is all by chance, they still would rather have someone with seemingly more luck to have control over them.

In a real world example, at the 2002 Olympics men’s and women’s hockey finals, Team Canada beat Team USA but it was later believed that the win was the result of the luck of a Canadian coin that was secretly placed under the ice before the game. The members of Team Canada were the only people who knew the coin had been placed there. The coin was later sent to the Hockey Hall of Fame where there was an opening so people could touch it. People believed they could transfer luck from the coin to themselves by touching it, and thereby change their own luck.

Ellen Langer’s research demonstrated that people were more likely to behave as if they could exercise control in a chance situation where ‘skill cues’ were present. Such cues were properties of the situation normally associated with the exercise of skill, in particular the exercise of choice, competition, familiarity with the stimulus and involvement in decisions. One simple form of this effect is found in casinos: when rolling dice in a craps game people tend to throw harder when they need high numbers and softer for low numbers.

Another way to investigate perceptions of control is to ask people about hypothetical situations, for example their likelihood of being involved in a motor vehicle accident. On average, drivers regard accidents as much less likely in ‘high-control’ situations, such as when they are driving, than in ‘low-control’ situations, such as when they are in the passenger seat. They also rate a high-control accident, such as driving into the car in front, as much less likely than a low-control accident such as being hit from behind by another driver. This is an example of faulty risk perception.

Social psychologist Suzanne Thompson argued that Langer’s explanation was inadequate to explain all the variations in the effect. As an alternative, she proposed that judgments about control are based on a procedure she called the ‘control heuristic.’ She proposed that judgments of control depend on two conditions: an intention to create the outcome, and a relationship between the action and outcome. In games of chance, these two conditions frequently go together. As well as an intention to win, there is an action, such as throwing a die or pulling a lever on a slot machine, which is immediately followed by an outcome. Even though the outcome is selected randomly, the control heuristic would result in the player feeling a degree of control over the outcome.

Self-regulation theory offers another explanation. To the extent that people are driven by internal goals concerned with the exercise of control over their environment, they will seek to reassert control in conditions of chaos, uncertainty or stress. One way of coping with a lack of real control is to falsely attribute oneself control of the situation. The core self-evaluations (CSE) trait is a stable personality trait composed of locus of control, neuroticism, self-efficacy, and self-esteem. While those with high core self-evaluations are likely to believe that they control their own environment (i.e., internal locus of control), very high levels of CSE may lead to the illusion of control.

Psychologists studying depressive realism (the hypothesis that depressed individuals make more realistic inferences than neurotypicals) argue that positive illusions, including the illusion of control, are adaptive as they motivate people to persist at tasks when they might otherwise give up. This position is supported by eminent psychologist Albert Bandura’s claim that ‘optimistic self-appraisals of capability, that are not unduly disparate from what is possible, can be advantageous, whereas veridical judgements can be self-limiting.’ His argument is essentially concerned with the adaptive effect of optimistic beliefs about control and performance in circumstances where control is possible, rather than perceived control in circumstances where outcomes do not depend on an individual’s behavior. Bandura has also suggested that: ‘In activities where the margins of error are narrow and missteps can produce costly or injurious consequences, personal well-being is best served by highly accurate efficacy appraisal.’

Positive illusions are argued to be adaptive because there is evidence that they are more common in normally mentally healthy individuals than in depressed individuals. However, other research has shown that this may be because depressed people overcompensate for a tendency toward maladaptive intuitive processing by exercising excessive rational control in trivial situations, and note that the difference with non-depressed people disappears in more consequential circumstances.

There is also empirical evidence that high self-efficacy can be maladaptive in some circumstances. A scenario-based study showed that participants in whom they had induced high self-efficacy were significantly more likely to escalate commitment to a failing course of action. Such lack of illusions is associated with a non-defensive personality oriented towards growth and learning and with low ego involvement in outcomes. There is evidence that self-determined individuals are less prone to these illusions. In the late 1970s, psychologists Lyn Yvonne Abramson and Lauren Alloy demonstrated that depressed individuals held a more accurate view than their non-depressed counterparts in a test which measured illusion of control. This finding held true even when the depression was manipulated experimentally. However, a 2005 experiment replicating the study found that the overestimation of control in nondepressed people only shows up when the interval is long enough, implying they take more aspects of a situation into account than their depressed counterparts. A 1989 study showed that depressed people believe they have no control in situations where they actually do, so their perception is not always more accurate overall. A 2007 review proposed that the pessimistic bias of depressives resulted in depressive realism when asked about estimation of control, because depressed individuals are more likely to say no even if they have control.

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