What Is The “Illusion Of Control”?

Medically reviewed by Dr. April Brewer, DBH, LPC
Updated April 24, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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. 

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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. 

Seek support 

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 are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

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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. 

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