What Is The “Illusion Of Control” And What Are Some Examples?
By Sarah Fader
Updated December 14, 2018
Reviewer Deborah Horton
The illusion of control is a positive trait that can have negative consequences. It is referred to as the exaggerated belief of influencing an outcome that is outside their ability to control.
From their earliest awareness of their capacity for creating tools, human beings have strived to control their environment. They built shelters to protect themselves from the wind, rain, and snow. They fashioned garments to battle against the cold, and headwear to shade them from the heat. They learned to grow crops to keep their harvest bountiful and placed walls around their crops to protect them from predators.
The urge to control brought positive changes, yet the quality of their lives still depended greatly on the weather. Early humans petitioned the forces of nature in the form of prayer or formal ceremony. They danced, made offerings and performed sacrifices in the hopes of appeasing 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, giving them the weather they needed. They had the illusion of control over their weather.
It's In The Wind
The drive to control the weather created a positive effect. Humankind set out to understand the forces that create weather and to forecast them. With computers, satellite imaging, and infrared cameras, humankind is now able to study the forces of weather and how it works both externally and internally. We've learned how we make an impact on weather and our limitations in controlling it. We are forewarned on rain, snow, storms, and hurricanes.
But there is still an underlying belief in many, if not all of us, that we can somehow control events by harnessing the catalyst for all weather; the wind. Winds spring up. They are as subtle as the light movement of dead leaves and can grow to a fury that tears apart buildings and ships. A rustle of wind is in each movement you make.
Studies have proven dependably that when people roll dice, they will roll them harder if they want a higher number and softer if they want a lower number. It is a sub-conscious, and sometimes conscious urge, to control a random event. There is also documentary agreement that people who use the slot machines will try to control the outcome through the way they press down on the handle.
This positive trait can also be found in dance and martial arts movements, in the gestures of an orchestra conductor, in relaxation techniques. We are directing air (wind) to create a positive outcome. We call this wind energy and imagine it as positive or negative. Whether we are a participant or an observer, we respond to it. Musicians play better with a director. We feel more connected when we meditate as a group. We find it easy to visualize this energy gathering and transfer because the hard wiring in all of us accepts it.
It becomes an illusion of control when we believe these movements will allow us to manipulate random events. Ceremonial dances to invoke or lift curses, chase away demons or cast spells are examples of the illusion of control. These dances may incite enough negative feelings for the participants to do something unreasonable, but this is the effect of their delusions, not control over random events.
From Gamblers to Investors
Risk taking has always been an admired trait in the annals of history. Risk takers connected civilization around the world crossed the seas and explored the skies. Risk taking is also part of the profile of many successful investors and stock brokers. Similar to explorers, they took calculated risks based on their background, skills, and experience.
Risk-taking can become an addiction. The one thing in common all risk takers have is a belief they can control random or unforeseen events. The difference, however, 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 mojo he can get lucky.
This is evidenced in card playing. Those who are willing to take calculated risks will be more likely to be drawn into games that involve both skill and chance. Those who are willing to gamble because they believe they have somehow imposed lady luck to smile down on them will more likely play games of chance.
Gamblers with the illusion they can control random events usually carry talisman, tokens or other physical evidence that they are persuading luck to stay by their side. They could have a lucky rabbit's foot or a special coin, maybe an article of clothing. Some gamblers believe luck can be channeled into them by bringing along a companion who appears lucky.
Talisman is not restricted to gamblers, however. Many people have their lucky and unlucky numbers, qualms about spiders or cats, keep items that will protect them and drive misfortune away. As a positive trait, many of this talisman add tranquility and composure to a society, unite the members with others of like mind and create a balanced environment. Negative consequences can be paranoia, unfounded fears, acute anxieties and delusions that they are either in complete control over events or that events have conspired to defeat them.
It Could Have Been Better
There probably isn't anyone in the world who has never experienced the wistful feeling that they could have changed the outcome if they had just gone back and done things better. This feeling is so powerful; it's the subject of science fiction shows theorizing on what would happen in the future if we could change the past.
We constantly berate ourselves for things we could have done and how the consequences of our actions continue to affect our daily lives. We are convinced if we could just do it over again with the knowledge we have now, it would be different, even though changing the past would also change our memories of the present.
Regret is normal. Avoiding past mistakes helps create a mature, decision making mind. Dwelling on a past that can't be changed is an illusion of control. No matter what the consequences were leading up to the event, the actions can no longer be changed in any manner. The only real choice is to move forward with what you have learned.
Balance of Control
At our psychological base, we all feel the need for some control. We may give a name for the control, calling it destiny or fate or give the control to ourselves, calling it free will. The desire for control over our lives shaped the concepts of our natural liberties and the desire for control over our decision-making process shaped the bill of rights.
We don't like to feel out of control. We don't like to feel powerless about doing something effective in a critical situation. We don't like being held captive or imprisoned. Some people are even afraid to commit themselves to relationships because they fear they'll lose control.
Some people exert the illusion of control better than others. 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 win decisive battles or accomplishes amazing feats, such as landing on the moon. Sometimes the illusion of control creates tyranny, destruction, and abusive behaviors.
Our Healthy Illusions
As we learn more about cause and effect, our views of random chance grow smaller. We know how to protect ourselves from the environment and how to predict the weather. We know how to track the stars and explore the ocean depths. We wonder more about whether or existence is deliberate or happened by random chance.
The illusion of control has given us enormous power as an intelligent species exploring our universe. It has brought people together under leaders who brought us new technologies, products and goods, higher education and great works of art. The illusion has been romanticized in myths, such as King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. It has been illustrated as futility, such as the tales of Don Quixote. It has been used as a cautionary tale on sound, a moral judgment such as the story of the Pied Piper.
Sometimes the illusion of control can take us to strange places. In a belief there was a Fountain of Youth that could control the aging process, Ponce de Leon uncovered a rich tropical jungle that would later be known as Florida. Although he failed in his mission, the human desire to control the aging process has led to a medical field concentrating on diet, nutrition, exercise and miraculous new drugs and procedures that would expand our life expectancy.
At the end of the Day
As a species, our brains are hard-wired to face impossible odds. As a species, we have greatly benefitted from our illusions of control, carrying us through a development period that understood very little about cause and effect in the world around them. Much of what we've learned about what we can and cannot control has been through trial and error. The most successful leaders and business people are those with strong skill sets and solid experience along with a willingness to take risks.
As human beings, we are reluctant to say whether our existence was intentional or just random chance. We sway between visions of perfect order and anarchy or chaos. We do know, however, that the illusion of control is a very human impulse that can be self-defeating or carry us to great heights.
It becomes tangled with our daily behaviors, incorporated into our morals and judgments. We keep talisman, perform ceremonies, maintain traditions and follow into the unknown because of our innate belief in a power that will give us more control over circumstances and random events. We are reluctant to discuss it because this innate belief is in all of us, yet it is a positive trait. Like a two-edged sword, only when the illusions of control become delusions of grandeur and prompts aggressive actions, violence or reckless behavior does it become an illusion we can all live without.
If you or someone you know suffers from an aggressive personality, reckless behavior or addictive behavior it's time to get help. The number online therapy site http://www.BetterHelp.com/start/ is a great place to start, especially since they have a large selection of counselors, doctors and other medical professionals to choose from. Work therapy into your schedule or choose a doctor of your preference and work around theirs. Within a few weeks or months, you can make positive changes in your life!