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The illusion of control is the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control events. It was named by U.S. psychologist
Ellen Langer Ellen Jane Langer (; born March 25, 1947) is an American professor of psychology Psychology is the science of mind and behavior. Psychology includes the study of consciousness, conscious and Unconscious mind, unconscious phenomena, as well ...

Ellen Langer
and is thought to influence
gambling Gambling (also known as betting) is the wagering something of Value (economics), value ("the stakes") on an Event (probability theory), event with an uncertain outcome with the intent of winning something else of value. Gambling thus requires ...
behavior and belief in the
paranormal Paranormal events are purported phenomena described in popular culture, Folk culture, folk, and other non-scientific bodies of knowledge, whose existence within these contexts is described as beyond the scope of normal scientific understandin ...
. Along with
illusory superiority In the field of social psychology, illusory superiority is a condition of cognitive bias wherein a person overestimates their own qualities and abilities, in relation to the same qualities and abilities of other people. Illusory superiority is on ...
and
optimism bias Optimism bias (or the optimistic bias) is a cognitive bias A cognitive bias is a systematic pattern of deviation from norm (philosophy), norm or rationality in judgment. Individuals create their own "subjective reality" from their perception of th ...
, the illusion of control is one of the positive illusions.


Definition

The illusion of control is the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control events, for example, when someone feels a sense of control over outcomes that they demonstrably do not influence. The illusion might arise because a person lacks direct introspective insight into whether they are in control of events. This has been called the
introspection illusion The introspection illusion is a cognitive bias A cognitive bias is a systematic pattern of deviation from norm (philosophy), norm or rationality in judgment. Individuals create their own "subjective reality" from their perception of the input. A ...
. Instead, they may judge their degree of control by a process which is often unreliable. As a result, they see themselves as responsible for events to which there is little or no causal link. For example, 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.


History

Psychological theorists have consistently emphasized the importance of perceptions of control over life events. One of the earliest instances was when
Alfred Adler Alfred Adler (; ; 7 February 1870 – 28 May 1937) was an Austrian medical doctor, psychotherapist Psychotherapy (also psychological therapy or talking therapy) is the use of Psychology, psychological methods, particularly when based on regu ...

Alfred Adler
argued that people strive for proficiency in their lives. Heider later proposed that humans have a strong motive to control their environment and Wyatt Mann hypothesized a basic competence motive that people satisfy by exerting control. Wiener, an
attribution Attribution may refer to: * Attribution (copyright), concept in copyright law requiring an author to be credited * Attribution (journalism), the identification of the source of reported information * Attribution (law), legal doctrines by which lia ...
theorist, modified his original theory of achievement motivation to include a controllability dimension. Kelley then argued that people's failure to detect noncontingencies may result in their attributing uncontrollable outcomes to personal causes. Nearer to the present, Taylor and Brown argued that positive illusions, including the illusion of control, foster mental health. The effect was named by U.S. psychologist
Ellen Langer Ellen Jane Langer (; born March 25, 1947) is an American professor of psychology Psychology is the science of mind and behavior. Psychology includes the study of consciousness, conscious and Unconscious mind, unconscious phenomena, as well ...

Ellen Langer
and has been replicated in many different contexts.


Occurrence

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. Although 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, make their choice before the event happens like with throwing dice, and when they can make their choice rather than have it made for them with the same odds. People are more likely to show control when they have more answers right at the beginning than at the end, even when the people had the same number of correct answers.


By proxy

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. In one instance, a lottery pool at a company decides 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 another real-world example, in 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 which 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 put in 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.


Demonstration

The illusion of control is demonstrated by three converging lines of evidence: 1) laboratory experiments, 2) observed behavior in familiar games of chance such as lotteries, and 3) self-reports of real-world behavior.


Laboratory experiments

One kind of laboratory demonstration involves two lights marked "Score" and "No Score". Subjects have to try to control which one lights up. In one version of this experiment, subjects could press either of two buttons. Another version had one button, which subjects decided on each trial to press or not. Subjects had a variable degree of control over the lights, or none at all, depending on how the buttons were connected. The experimenters made clear that there might be no relation between the subjects' actions and the lights. Subjects estimated how much control they had over the lights. These estimates bore no relation to how much control they actually had, but was related to how often the "Score" light lit up. Even when their choices made no difference at all, subjects confidently reported exerting some control over the lights.


Observed behavior in games

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. By skill cues, Langer meant properties of the situation more 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
casino A casino is a facility for certain types of gambling. Casinos are often built near or combined with hotels, resorts, restaurants, retail shopping, cruise ships, and other tourist attractions. Some casinos are also known for hosting live entertai ...

casino
s: when rolling
dice Dice (singular die or dice) are small, throwable objects with marked sides that can rest in multiple positions. They are used for generating random numbers, commonly as part of tabletop game Tabletop games are game with separate sliding d ...

dice
in a
craps Craps is a dice game Dice games are games that use or incorporate one or more dice as their sole or central component, usually as a random device. The following are games which largely, if not entirely, depend on dice: Collectible dice gam ...

craps
game people tend to throw harder when they need high numbers and softer for low numbers. In another experiment, subjects had to predict the outcome of thirty coin tosses. The feedback was rigged so that each subject was right exactly half the time, but the groups differed in where their "hits" occurred. Some were told that their early guesses were accurate. Others were told that their successes were distributed evenly through the thirty trials. Afterwards, they were surveyed about their performance. Subjects with early "hits" overestimated their total successes and had higher expectations of how they would perform on future guessing games. This result resembles the '' irrational primacy effect'' in which people give greater weight to information that occurs earlier in a series. Forty percent of the subjects believed their performance on this chance task would improve with practice, and twenty-five percent said that distraction would impair their performance. Another of Langer's experiments replicated by other researchers involves a lottery. Subjects are either given tickets at random or allowed to choose their own. They can then trade their tickets for others with a higher chance of paying out. Subjects who had chosen their own ticket were more reluctant to part with it. Tickets bearing familiar symbols were less likely to be exchanged than others with unfamiliar symbols. Although these lotteries were random, subjects behaved as though their choice of ticket affected the outcome. Participants who chose their own numbers were less likely to trade their ticket even for one in a game with better odds.


Self reported behavior

Yet 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.


Explanations

Ellen Langer, who first demonstrated the illusion of control, explained her findings in terms of a confusion between skill and chance situations. She proposed that people base their judgments of control on "skill cues". These are features of a situation that are usually associated with games of skill, such as competitiveness, familiarity and individual choice. When more of these skill cues are present, the illusion is stronger. In 1998, Suzanne Thompson and colleagues argued that Langer's explanation was inadequate to explain all the variations in the effect. As an alternative, they proposed that judgments about control are based on a procedure that they called the "control heuristic". This theory proposes that judgments of control to 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 A slot machine (American English American English (AmE, AE, AmEng, USEng, en-US), sometimes called United States English or U.S. English, is the set of varieties of the English language native to the United States. Currently, American ...

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 Self-regulation theory (SRT) is a system of conscious personal management that involves the process of guiding one's own thoughts, behaviors and feelings to reach goals. Self-regulation consists of several stages and individuals must function as con ...
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 Core self-evaluations (CSE) represent a stable personality trait which encompasses an individual's subconscious, fundamental evaluations about themselves, their own abilities and their own control. People who have high core self-evaluations will t ...
(CSE) trait is a stable personality trait composed of
locus of control Locus of control is the degree to which people believe that they, as opposed to external forces (beyond their influence), have control over the outcome of events in their lives. The concept was developed by Julian B. Rotter in 1954, and has sinc ...
,
neuroticism In the study of psychology Psychology is the science of mind and behavior. Psychology includes the study of consciousness, conscious and Unconscious mind, unconscious phenomena, as well as feeling and thought. It is an academic discipline o ...
,
self-efficacy Self-efficacy, a concept originally proposed by the psychologist Albert Bandura Albert Bandura (; born December 4, 1925) is a Canadian Canadians (french: Canadiens) are people identified with the country of Canada. This connection may be r ...
, and
self-esteem Self-esteem is an individual's subjective evaluation of their own worth. Self-esteem encompasses beliefs about oneself (for example, "I am unloved", "I am worthy") as well as emotional states, such as triumph, despair, pride, and shame. Smith an ...
. 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.


Benefits and costs to the individual

In 1988 Taylor and Brown have argued 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
Albert Bandura Albert Bandura (; born December 4, 1925) is a Canadian Canadians (french: Canadiens) are people identified with the country of Canada. This connection may be residential, legal, historical or cultural. For most Canadians, many (or all) of t ...

Albert Bandura
's claim in 1989 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. In 1997 Bandura 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."
Taylor and Brown argue that positive illusions are adaptive, since there is evidence that they are more common in normally mentally healthy individuals than in depressed individuals. However, in 1998 Pacini, Muir and Epstein showed 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 Empirical evidence for a proposition In logic and linguistics, a proposition is the meaning of a declarative sentence (linguistics), sentence. In philosophy, "Meaning (philosophy), meaning" is understood to be a non-linguistic entity which is s ...
that high self-efficacy can be maladaptive in some circumstances. In a scenario-based study, Whyte et al. showed in 1997 that participants in whom they had induced high self-efficacy were significantly more likely to escalate commitment to a failing course of action. In 1998 Knee and Zuckerman challenged the definition of mental health used by Taylor and Brown and argue that lack of illusions is associated with a non-defensive personality oriented towards growth and learning and with low ego involvement in outcomes. They present evidence that self-determined individuals are less prone to these illusions. In the late 1970s, Abramson and
Alloy An alloy is an admixture of metal A metal (from Greek#REDIRECT Greek Greek may refer to: Greece Anything of, from, or related to Greece Greece ( el, Ελλάδα, , ), officially the Hellenic Republic, is a country located in ...
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, when replicating the findings Msetfi et al. (2005, 2007) found that the overestimation of control in nondepressed people only showed up when the interval was long enough, implying that this is because they take more aspects of a situation into account than their depressed counterparts. Also, Dykman et al. (1989) showed that depressed people believe they have no control in situations where they actually do, so their perception is not more accurate overall. Allan et al. (2007) has 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. A number of studies have found a link between a sense of control and health, especially in older people. This link for older people having improved health because of a sense of control was discussed in a study conducted in a nursing home. As the residents at the nursing home were encouraged to make more choices for themselves, there was more sense of control over their daily lives. This increase in control increased their overall happiness and health compared to those not making as many decisions for themselves. It was even speculated that with results so promising could slow down or reverse cognitive decline that may occur with aging. Fenton-O'Creevy et al. argue, as do Gollwittzer and Kinney in 1998, that while illusory beliefs about control may promote goal striving, they are not conducive to sound decision-making. Illusions of control may cause insensitivity to feedback, impede learning and predispose toward greater objective risk taking (since subjective risk will be reduced by illusion of control).


Applications

Psychologist
Daniel Wegner Daniel Merton Wegner (June 28, 1948 – July 5, 2013) was an American social psychologist. He was a professor of psychology at Harvard University and a fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Academy ...
argues that an illusion of control over external events underlies belief in
psychokinesis Psychokinesis (from Greek#REDIRECT Greek Greek may refer to: Greece Anything of, from, or related to Greece Greece ( el, Ελλάδα, , ), officially the Hellenic Republic, is a country located in Southeast Europe. Its population is ...
, a supposed paranormal ability to move objects directly using the mind. As evidence, Wegner cites a series of experiments on
magical thinking Magical thinking, or superstitious thinking, is the belief that unrelated events are causally connected despite the absence of any plausible causal link between them, particularly as a result of supernatural effects. Examples include the idea that ...
in which subjects were induced to think they had influenced external events. In one experiment, subjects watched a
basketball Basketball is a team sport in which two teams, most commonly of five players each, opposing one another on a rectangular court A court is any person or institution, often as a government institution, with the authority to Adjudication, ...

basketball
player taking a series of
free throws In basketball Basketball is a team sport in which two teams, most commonly of five players each, opposing one another on a rectangular court A court is any person or institution, often as a government institution, with the authority ...
. When they were instructed to visualise him making his shots, they felt that they had contributed to his success. A study published in 2003 examined traders working in the
City of London The City of London is a city A city is a large .Goodall, B. (1987) ''The Penguin Dictionary of Human Geography''. London: Penguin.Kuper, A. and Kuper, J., eds (1996) ''The Social Science Encyclopedia''. 2nd edition. London: Routledge. It ...

City of London
's
investment banks An investment bank is a financial services Financial services are the Service (economics), economic services provided by the finance industry, which encompasses a broad range of businesses that manage money, including credit unions, banks, credit ...
. They each watched a graph being plotted on a computer screen, similar to a real-time graph of a stock price or index. Using three computer keys, they had to raise the value as high as possible. They were warned that the value showed random variations, but that the keys might have some effect. In fact, the fluctuations were not affected by the keys. The traders' ratings of their success measured their susceptibility to the illusion of control. This score was then compared with each trader's performance. Those who were more prone to the illusion scored significantly lower on analysis,
risk management Risk management is the identification, evaluation, and prioritization of risk In simple terms, risk is the possibility of something bad happening. Risk involves uncertainty Uncertainty refers to Epistemology, epistemic situations involving ...

risk management
and contribution to profits. They also earned significantly less.Fenton-O'Creevy, M., Nicholson, N. and Soane, E., Willman, P. (2005) ''Traders - Risks, Decisions, and Management in Financial Markets''


See also


Notes


References

* * * * * *


Further reading

*
Press me! The buttons that lie to you
by Chris Baraniuk, 16th April 2015, bbc.com {{Biases Cognitive biases Control Magical thinking Control (social and political)