TAG | Illusion of control

In social psychology, the illusion of control is grouped with two other concepts and termed as the ‘positive illusions’. Optimism bias and illusory superiority make up the trio. The latter being a self-bias that causes people to overestimate their qualities and abilities, and underestimate their downfalls (sound like anyone you know?) and the former being a demonstrated tendency for people to be overly optimistic about the outcome of their planned actions. The illusion of control relates to a person’s ability to correctly perceive the level of control they have over an outcome. Those suffering from the illusion of control have a tendency to overestimate their power and to feel as though they control outcomes that they actually have no influence over. It is an effect named by psychologist Ellen Langer. She found that there can be a confusion between skill and chance situations, so that even when an outcome can only be arrived at by chance, people will tend to base their judgments on “skill cues” – features of a situation that stem from familiarity, individual choice, and competitiveness.

These three effects can easily be seen to have a close relationship to one another. Someone whose mind is muddled by illusory superiority could swiftly develop the illusion of control and come out of it making decisions with an optimism bias. Scary territory indeed when you take into account that those most susceptible to the kind of power that could teeter them on the edge of this slippery slide are those who make the world’s most weighty decisions. Illusion of control can be strengthened by stressful situations such as financial trading. Optimism bias, the psychological effect at the tail end of this chain reaction, can lead to cost overruns, delays in expensive projects, economic bubbles and military conflicts.  Megalomaniacs, anyone?

In terms more closely related to the general population, the illusion of control is thought to influence gambling behavior. Something as simple as choosing your own lottery numbers is a display of being under this illusion. Studies have shown that in the game of craps, people tend to throw the dice harder when they require high numbers and throw softer for low numbers. This relates back to Langer’s “skill cues” – this is a behavior they can physically alter to attempt to win at a game that is totally up to chance. If this works, the gambler may form an unrealistic belief that they are “skilled” at the game, and will continue to gamble into the night (or day).  So while illusory beliefs of control may provoke goal-striving, they are not conducive to sound decision making!

At first these concepts, these “positive illusions”, seem to harness deep and problematic symptoms, especially if the person suffering the illusion is actually responsible for something, say, the running of a country. Can something positive actually stem from such an illusion?

Aside from the usually short-lived bliss of experiencing a glorious superiority about oneself, positive illusions can be motivating. If a person believes they have a level of control over their personal success they may work harder to achieve that. It has a role in self-esteem.

Heidi Grant Halvorson, writing for SmartBlog, talks of the “intrinsic motivation” that is created by self-chosen goals. This kind of motivation causes people to enjoy greater personal satisfaction. Heidi believes you can develop your employees by giving them the illusion of choice; by explaining the value of their assigned goal and allowing them to make decisions about how they will reach the goal and some peripheral aspects along the way. The perceived sense of control that the employee experiences will help them to persist in the face of difficulty and enjoy their work more deeply.

The illusion of control can also act as a coping mechanism. I know movies don’t really count as examples, but think of a hero in your favourite horror /disaster flick – the city/barn/planet is surrounded by deadly monsters/zombies/aliens and to quash a total lack of real control, our hero falsely attributes themselves control over the situation and convinces the trembling group of survivors with them that he/she has a plan. (An overly optimistic plan, but nonetheless…!)

Our hero may in turn give the trembling group themselves the illusion of control by manipulating the way information is presented or giving cues that imply skill has a role to play in this ordeal. This is like a cognitive version of an optical illusion, and is something to be wary of. While an optical illusion may be old news, a cognitive illusion is much trickier, affecting our reasoning apparatus.  If the way information is presented to us is manipulated, we can be led to believe all kinds of things, and led to make decisions that are not based upon a full and fair display of the knowledge we require to make that decision properly. In an article by Ben Goldacre discussing a paper by the British Journal of Psychology that shows how we can create illusions of causality by manipulating the information we present, he writes that most “expert opinion” is ranked as the least helpful form of information in evidence based medicine (I instantly picture the white lab coat wearing makeup and skincare brand experts we see on TV ads).

In some of us this may breed skepticism in all information presented to us. I have often doubted the operability of the ‘close doors’ button in an elevator. Goldacre, through a link to this article by Nick Paumgarten for the NewYorker, has enlightened me to this little factoid:

“In most elevators, at least in any built or installed since the early nineties, the door-close button doesn’t work. It is there mainly to make you think it works. (It does work if, say, a fireman needs to take control. But you need a key, and a fire, to do that.) Once you know this, it can be illuminating to watch people compulsively press the door-close button. That the door eventually closes reinforces their belief in the button’s power. It’s a little like prayer. Elevator design is rooted in deception—to disguise not only the bare fact of the box hanging by ropes but also the tethering of tenants to a system over which they have no command.”

Admittedly, this kind of illusion of control is only vaguely positive; a fleeting comfort that doesn’t truly exist.

I’d like to finish with some words from Shannon Rupp; from a blog she posted about an instance where consumers ARE actually exercising control over corporations instead of the usual vice versa. (An incident of twitter-fuelled consumer outrage at the new Gap logo, resulting in the company reverting back to the old look.)

“If you scratch the surface of most inexplicable human behavior, you find that it’s comforting in some way. That’s why people believe in psychics and all sorts of magical thinking: it gives them an illusion of control, which they find reassuring.

So maybe shopping and exercising influence on brands makes’em feel like they have control in a chaotic world?

I wonder if they’ve heard the term Fool’s Paradise?

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