What Is The “Illusion Of Control” And What Are Some Examples?
Updated May 13, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Deborah Horton
Every day, we aim to control our lives. We try to avoid disasters and make good things happen for ourselves and others. While we know that we can never fully control what happens to us, we feel safer when we believe we can. We feel safer when we believe that the choices we make are fully ours, and therefore their consequences can be controlled. The illusion of control is that very belief that we can influence outcomes that are, in fact, beyond our ability to control.
Early Illusions Of Control
As humans, we have always strived to control our environment, often out of survival. Early humans built shelters to protect themselves from the wind, rain, and snow. They fashioned garments to protect themselves from the cold and headwear to shade them from the heat. They learned to grow crops to keep their harvest bountiful and their children fed. They placed walls around their crops to protect them from predators. They trained dogs to herd their animals. All of these were skills thatwere useful to adapting to their environment, but there was little they could do about the environment itself. A sturdy shelter protects you from the rain, but it doesn’t stop the rain.
Therefore, early humans petitioned the forces of nature for goodwill in the form of ceremonies. They danced, made offerings, and performed sacrifices to appease the mysterious forces controlling the weather. When the rain came following a ceremony, or when a cold snap broke, they believed they had persuaded the gods to intervene. They granted themselves the illusion of control over their weather.
The Illusion Of Control Today
Today some groups of people, both cultural and national, perform ceremonial dances or cast spells to invoke or lift curses or chase away demons. Some groups of people participate in prayers for alleviating things that are ailing them or those they love.
What are some other current examples of people illustrating the illusion of control? One place to look is at gambling. Studies have shown that people tend to roll dice harder if they want a higher number and softer if they want a lower number. This is based on a subconscious (and sometimes conscious) urge to control a random event. The belief that any human factors can affect a dice roll in a major way is also an illusion of control that casinos bank on. Similarly, when gambling with slot machines, people will try to control the outcome by the way they press the handle. In fact, this has no impact on the results.
Risk-Taking AndThe Illusion Of Control
One thing most risk-takers have in common is the belief they can control random or unforeseen events. This may look like a reckless motorcycle driver or a rock-climber who goes it alone. The difference between an investor and a gambler is that the investor knows he is taking a calculated risk while the gambler believes that through the right move here or there, he can get lucky. This is evidenced in card playing. Those who enjoy taking calculated risks are more likely to enjoy games that involve both skill and chance. Those who gamble because they believe they have somehow convinced lady luck to smile down upon them will more likely play games of chance.
Gamblers who believe they can control random events usually carry a talisman, token, or other physical evidence that they are persuading luck to stay by their side. They may carry a lucky rabbit's foot, a special coin, or maybe an article of clothing. Some gamblers even believe luck can be channeled into them by bringing along a companion who appears lucky or signifies luck.
These characteristics are not limited to gamblers. In fact, many people have lucky and unlucky numbers, and keep items that they believe will protect them and drive misfortune away. Many people also keep certain items close for the comfort they provide from the outside world, like a beloved stuffed animal.
It Could Have Been Different
Almost all of us have experienced the wistful feeling that we could have changed the outcome of an unfortunate event if we could have just gone back and done things differently better. Many of us find ourselves constantly berate ourselves for things we should and shouldn't have done, especially if an outcome was particularly painful. We are convinced if we could do it over again with the knowledge we have now, it would be different.
Regret is natural. Avoiding repeating past mistakes contributes to growth and maturity. However, dwelling on a past event that can't be changed is an illusion of control. No matter what circumstances led to a given event, the actions can no longer be changed-and in fact, we don't know that we could have changed the outcome even if we had acted differently. The only real choice is to move forward with what we have learned.
Balance Of Control
We all feel the need for control in some situations. We don't like to feel powerless about our ability to perform effectively in critical situations. This contributes to our tendency toward maintaining the illusion of control for ourselves. Needing to feel in control at every moment, perhaps out of fear, can lead you to self-restrict or avoid certain events that, with better coping mechanism, you could enjoy.
How does this play out in society at large? People who feel they have little or no control over their lives will often pair up with someone who seems to be in complete control. We look for leaders with a strong illusion of control and voluntarily give up our free choice in the belief they can vanquish impossible odds. Sometimes this leadership pays off in daring actions that accomplish amazing feats, such as landing on the moon. Sometimes the illusion of control creates tyranny, destruction, and abusive behaviors.
At The End Of The Day
A number of our daily behaviors, especially those involving superstitions, are motivated by the illusion of control. We keep talisman, perform ceremonies, and maintain traditions because we believe these things will give us more control over random events. Even celebrating holidays gives us the illusion of control over time. Very often, these behaviors are harmless. However, when they do lead us to harm (like compulsive gambling or avoidance tendencies), it may be time to look for a solution to getting comfortable to our lack of control.
Talk to a friend. The people you keep around you are instrumental to the way you navigate your life. Make sure you talk to someone who supports you and can help ground you when you feel a loss of control.
Write it down. Journaling is a great way to deal with negative emotions such as feeling out of control. Writing things down can help you understand and deal with such emotions more productively.
Start Meditating. Meditation can help you understand and navigate your emotions with a clearer perspective. It is also great quality time to set aside for yourself to gain a better outlook on your life and the world.
Seek Professional Help
Professional help doesn’t have to be something scary or require you sitting in a room opposite of a stranger divulging your secrets. In fact, pursuing therapy online has proven to be just as, if not more, effective than in-person therapy. A study even found that online therapy programs using cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness actually decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression in patients, more than those just using in-person therapy. As anxiety and depression are often the root and sometimes the result of these sort of control-seeking behaviors, online therapy could be the right tool for you.
Online therapy is an effective and efficient way to seek help. You can be connected with a therapist immediately, instead of waiting for a local office to be taking new patients. You can also speak about what you’re struggling with without fear of judgement. Online services are completely confidential, so you can air what’s on your mind.
If you or someone you know suffers from reckless behavior or feels afraid of situations they cannot control, it may be time to get help. The online therapy site BetterHelp is a great place to start, with a large selection of counselors to choose from. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.
"Jessica is always there for me. Through my anxiety, sadness and happiness. She helps me to focus on the positive rather than reflect on what I can't control."
"I came on to BetterHelp because I felt like I was a breaking point with my mental health and was having issues with my family that was going in no direction towards a solution. I met Kelli and with a few days of exploding and venting I felt so much better. I felt even better after a couple of weeks of discussing the different issues at home, and she helped me look at things in different perspectives. I'm learning to relax and not waste my energies on pointless issues and issues that I don't have control over."
The illusion of control doesn't have to take over your life. There are many things you can do to learn how to control what you can and accept what you can't control. Reach out and get the help you deserve today.
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