What is the “illusion of control”?
The illusion of control refers to humans' tendency to overestimate our behavior's influence over uncontrollable circumstances. It's a common phenomenon, and evidence suggests that the individuals trying to obtain the outcome contribute to cultivating the illusion.
It can be normal to wish for complete control over our lives, but many individuals know that we may not be able to control what happens to us all the time entirely.
Early illusions of control
Illusions of control may have origins in early civilizations for survival purposes. For instance, early humans developed ceremonies and rituals to appeal to the forces of nature or religion for their benefit.
If rain or a thaw occurred after a ceremony, people sometimes assumed they had persuaded natural forces to intervene in providing more favorable conditions, thereby granting themselves the illusion of control over the weather.
The illusion of control today
Today, some groups may perform ceremonial dances or rituals to invoke or lift curses or chase away demons. Some engage in prayer to alleviate things that are ailing them or those they love.
Another modern example of the illusion of control are behaviors related to gambling. Studies have shown that people who gamble are particularly vulnerable to the illusion of control, even going so far as to adopt superstitious behaviors such as rolling dice on the gambling table at different speeds depending on their desired outcome.
Similarly, when gambling with slot machines, people sometimes try to control the outcome by the way they press the handle. However, these actions may have no impact on the results. These behaviors are based on a subconscious (and sometimes conscious) urge to control a random event.
Risk-taking and the illusion of control
Individuals who engage in risky behaviors may sometimes believe they can control random or unforeseen events using their knowledge about the world.
For instance, high-stakes investors make decisions that could potentially impact many people significantly if they do not choose their investment strategies wisely. However, there is often a risk factor involved in those choices rooted in the uncontrollable and the unknown.
The source of the illusion of control for some investment bankers lies in the presence of "skill cues." Skill cues refer to the factors contributing to an outcome associated with the exercise of skill. Skill cues may also be influenced by competition, familiarity with the event, and freedom of choice.
Luck and control
Another source of the illusion of control lies in putting one's faith in an object to assist in controlling random events. For instance, some individuals who partake in gambling believe that carrying a "lucky" talisman or token will influence their likelihood of winning.
Some individuals also keep certain items close for the comfort they provide from the outside world, like a beloved stuffed animal or an item gifted by a loved one.
The role of regret
Many have experienced the feeling that we could have changed the outcome of an unfortunate event if we had done things differently. Some may engage in negative self-talk and self-blame for making the "wrong" decision in a situation where the outcome is painful or harmful.
We may believe that if we could revisit those decisions with our current knowledge, things would have turned out better. It can be common for individuals to maintain these beliefs, even if there is no evidence to support their truth.
At times, avoiding repeating past mistakes may help one grow and mature healthily. However, ruminating over a past event that cannot be changed may also fall under the category of an illusion of control.
No matter the circumstances, our past actions can no longer be altered. We have no way of knowing that the outcomes of our decisions would be any different if we had made different choices. If you are struggling with the feelings that come with grief or loss, you may be experiencing this phenomenon. Speaking to a professional or seeking resources may benefit you.
Illusion of control and relationships
Many individuals feel uncomfortable feeling powerless about their ability to perform effectively in critical situations. This feeling may fuel a tendency to maintain the illusion of control for yourself.
When there is a need to feel in control at every moment, perhaps out of fear, some may self-restrict or avoid certain events that they could enjoy with a better coping mechanism.
In relationships, these circumstances sometimes influence people who feel they have little or no control over their lives to pair up with someone who seems to be in control. They may look for leaders with a strong illusion of control and voluntarily give up their freedom of choice in the belief that their partner has control over circumstances that are impossible to control.
In some cases, this leadership proves effective, and the outcome of such situations is favorable. However, in negative cases, the illusion of control may cause abusive behaviors. Then, they may end up wondering if true love is an illusion.
Solutions to the illusion of control
At times, our daily behaviors, especially those involving superstitions, may be motivated by the illusion of control.
Some individuals keep talismans, perform ceremonies, and maintain traditions because they believe these things will give them more control over random events. These behaviors often feel positive and meaningful to the individuals and may not have negative consequences.
However, when illusions lead to harm (like compulsive gambling or avoidant tendencies), it may be beneficial for individuals to find ways to become more comfortable with a lack of control.
There are a few ways that people who experience negative feelings with the illusion of control may cope with the discomfort of those feelings.
The people we associate with may be instrumental in navigating our lives. Speaking to someone you trust who can support you when you feel a loss of control may contribute to your ability to cope with and move past those feelings.
Write in a journal
Some studies suggest that keeping a journal can help you cope with difficult emotions associated with feeling out of control. Journaling can also be an effective way to cultivate an understanding of our thoughts and emotions and to process them more productively.
Practice mindfulness and meditation
Many find that regular mindfulness meditation helps them better process and navigate emotions with a clearer perspective. Research also indicates that mindfulness meditation can contribute to physical and mental health and boost cognitive performance.
Seek professional help
Speaking to a licensed mental health professional can help you process the complex emotions that may accompany feelings of helplessness. A therapist can also provide you with practical strategies for navigating the illusion of control and becoming more comfortable with letting go and accepting the things in life you cannot change or control.
Therapy as a form of self-control
Choosing to seek support through a therapist for any concerns you have regarding control may be a way for you to take control of your life and your emotions.
Speaking to a therapist in person may seem intimidating to some. For others, there may be practical barriers to seeking treatment, like time. Consulting with a therapist online can provide a way around those barriers and put you on the path to getting the help you need.
According to a report from the National Center For Health Research, research has found that online therapy can be effective at treating anxiety, depression, and trauma. These findings may benefit individuals struggling with the illusion of control because anxiety and depression are often linked with control-seeking behaviors.
If you or someone you know has difficulty coping with situations they cannot control or has feelings of fear and anxiety associated with those situations, seeking the help of a therapist may be the first step toward resolving those feelings.
The licensed, accredited therapists on platforms such as BetterHelp often have diverse backgrounds and a wide range of expertise in treating the symptoms of common mental health concerns. Consider reaching out to a counselor to get started.
What is a real-life example of the illusion of control?
One well-known example of the illusion of control is the “close door” elevator buttons. Many elevators feature a button on the control panel that, according to its label, commands the door to close. However, in many cases, these buttons are a placebo; they do not affect how long the door takes to close. The buttons exist to placate impatient elevator riders who are eager for the door to close.
Pushing the button introduces perceived control; the person feels responsible for how long the door takes to close. In reality, they aren’t reducing the time at all, but the placebo effect likely reduces their irritation or anxiety associated with waiting for the door. Push buttons on crosswalks also commonly feature a similar illusion of control; many of the buttons a pedestrian might press to initiate a stoplight change don’t actually command the lights to do anything. Like the elevator doors, everything is controlled through timers and pre-programmed instructions.
What is an example of an illusion of control in business?
Occupational and organizational psychology research has revealed several areas where the illusion of control influences business. One example of an illusion of control in business is micromanagement. When a supervisor or manager becomes overly concerned with small, meaningless details of how employees do their jobs, they may feel they are increasing productivity. However, nearly everyone overestimates their personal influence over a given situation. It is likely that the supervisor’s efforts are not increasing productivity and may even be harming it.
Another example is the illusion of control among traders in financial markets. Evidence suggests that traders are negatively affected by the illusion of control. In one study, as their belief in the amount of control they had increased, their performance decreased significantly. Perceptions of control and trading performance are likely not the only areas where the illusion of control can have negative outcomes.
Is control just an illusion?
Control is an illusion in some circumstances, but not all. It is likely better to think about the amount of control a person has rather than if they have any at all. A person’s actual amount of control is a function of their influence and the magnitude of the situation being influenced. In most situations, humans are likely to believe they have more control than they actually do, but that doesn't mean they have no influence at all.
For example, consider two water vessels; one is a small rowboat designed for 2 or 3 people, while the other is a large oil tanker designed to transport thousands of gallons of fuel oil. The rowboat represents a low-magnitude (or easily influenced) situation, while the tanker represents a large-magnitude situation. If the person is given oars, they will be able to exert roughly the same amount of force on each vessel.
As one would expect, the rowboat responds well to being rowed by oars. The tanker, on the other hand, doesn’t respond at all. The person exerts the same level of influence on each vessel but can only control the rowboat. Now, imagine that the person begins to row at the same time the tanker's captain engages the engines and begins to maneuver the ship. The person is unaware of the captain’s actions, and, through sheer coincidence, the tanker begins to move just as the person starts rowing. They might attribute the tanker’s movement to their effort, which is an illusion of control; they are not exerting any meaningful influence.
What is the greatest illusion in life?
Many people consider life’s greatest illusion to be the illusion of control, which is a prominent and nearly universal experience. Most people tend to believe that, for any given situation, their effort was at least partly responsible for a certain outcome, even if that outcome was due to factors entirely independent of their influence. The illusion of control is likely strongest in situations where someone has personal involvement, advanced knowledge of a desired outcome, and a focus on success.
Why is the illusion of control important?
Researchers are still working to determine the exact functions that the illusion of control serves. It is one of many cognitive biases, which are systematic thought processes caused by the human brain’s tendency to simplify information by passing it through a filter of personal experiences and preferences. Cognitive biases can significantly disrupt a realistic interpretation of a given situation, but they can also be helpful. Helpful cognitive biases are often called cognitive heuristics, which are mental shortcuts that can significantly reduce the conscious thought a person needs to dedicate to a given situation.
Cognitive biases are double-edged swords. While they can reduce cognitive workload and make some situations easier to navigate, they can also introduce errors of perception and lead to inaccurate conclusions. Like other cognitive biases, the illusion of control can be helpful or harmful. Researchers speculate that the illusion of control - or the control heuristic - may help maintain and enhance self-esteem or satisfy an underlying need for control that most humans are thought to possess. It might also motivate people to become personally involved in a situation or help bolster optimism.
How do illusions affect our perception?
Some illusions affect a person’s perception directly, like optical illusions, which distort perception through physical features that are difficult for the human brain to interpret. Similarly, cognitive illusions can significantly impact human decision processes. Cognitive illusions, commonly studied in social psychology, may make a person conclude that a causal relationship exists where one does not.
For example, the illusion of control may influence a person’s perception of how much control they have over a situation. They may believe they can control events or a purely chance task much more than they actually can. Illusory control and other casual illusions can sometimes lead to irrational decisions, such as some gambling behavior, where a person genuinely believes they can influence the outcome of a game of chance.
Organizational psychology has also identified organizational behavior that is susceptible to causal illusions, such as the commonly held belief by many managers that micromanagement leads to increased productivity. In all likelihood, the opposite is probably true. Other causal illusions may lead to other effects, but all result from a person incorrectly assuming the reasons why a certain event occurred.
What does “life is an illusion” mean?
The phrase “life is an illusion” likely refers to human perception being susceptible to bias and incorrect conclusions. It is rarely possible to understand a situation objectively; preconceived notions, past experiences, and other facets of a person’s own thinking can lead to reality being inaccurately perceived.
Of course, almost nothing would get done if humans needed to objectively evaluate every situation they encountered with 100% accuracy. The flexibility of human perception allows for the use of cognitive heuristics, which are mental shortcuts that allow a person to reach conclusions rapidly. One example is the bandwagon effect, which refers to the tendency of humans to be more likely to adopt an idea if others support it as well. While that can sometimes lead to inaccurate conclusions - not all unpopular ideas are incorrect - on average, a popular idea will likely be superior to unpopular ones, reducing the amount of thinking a person needs to do to reach a conclusion.
Where is illusion used?
Illusion is used frequently, and it is often easiest to understand illusions that exploit the physical limitations of a person’s perception. For example, consider a typical television set. Most TV sets refresh at a rate of 60 hertz; the image on the screen is updated 60 times per second. The human brain and sensory organs (in this case, eyes) cannot update as quickly, making the TV image seem cohesive with smooth motion. If a person were to film a TV with a slow-motion camera, they would notice that the screen flickers as it updates.
Illusion can also affect thought processes. One example is charm pricing, a business practice that adjusts product prices slightly to increase the likelihood that it will be purchased. Perhaps the most well-known application of charm pricing is the rule of nines. Evidence suggests that most people assign a much greater weight to the whole-dollar portion of a listed price, with the portion after the decimal receiving less attention. Because of this, retailers can make a product seem cheaper by listing its price as $49.99 instead of $50.
How do I let go of the illusion of control?
While the illusion of control isn’t always bad and can sometimes be helpful, everyone will experience situations where the illusion of control leads to undesired outcomes. It’s likely not possible to eliminate the illusion of control, but it may be possible to reduce negative impacts. Below are a few strategies for managing the illusion of control:
- Introduce rationality. The illusion of control occurs when a person subconsciously connects their independent performance with a desired outcome, even if their effort had no impact on what happened. Simply taking time to logically and consciously connect your effort to a certain outcome may reduce the impact of the illusion of control.
- Practice radical acceptance. Part of letting go of the illusion of control is likely accepting that you can’t control everything you want to. Radical acceptance can help you cope with the things you cannot change, likely allowing you to rely less on the illusion of control.
- Find rational sources of optimism. Researchers believe that one of the helpful functions of the illusion of control is to bolster optimism; people are more likely to believe a preferred outcome is possible because they feel like they have control over it. Finding other ways to believe in a certain outcome, ideally based on logic, is likely to reduce the influence of the illusion of control.
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