What Is The “Illusion Of Control” And What Are Some Examples?
Updated November 20, 2019
Medically Reviewed By: Deborah Horton
Every day, we aim to control our lives, from avoiding disasters to making good things happen. While we know that we can never fully control what happens to us, we feel safer when we believe we can. The illusion of control is the 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. 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 placed walls around their crops to protect them from predators. All of these skills were within their control, yet there was little they could do about the weather itself.
Therefore, early humans petitioned the forces of nature 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 had the illusion of control over their weather.
To This Day
Even to this day, some people perform ceremonial dances or cast spells to invoke or lift curses or chase away demons.
What are some other current examples of 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. 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 and the Illusion of Control
One thing most risk-takers have in common is the belief they can control random or unforeseen events. 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 mojo, 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 or 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.
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.
It Could Have Been Better
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 better. We constantly berate ourselves for things we should and shouldn't have done. We are convinced if we could do it over again with the knowledge we have now, it would be different.
Regret is normal. Avoiding 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. We don't like to feel powerless about about our ability to perform effectively in critical situations. This contributes to our tendency toward the illusion of control.
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. Much of the time, these behaviors are harmless. However, when they do lead us to harm (like compulsive gambling), it may be time to look for a solution.
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 your emotions better. It is also great quality time to set aside for yourself to gain a better outlook.
Seek Professional Help
If you or someone you know suffers from reckless or addictive behavior, 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!