The illusion of possessing control
Oct 04 2012
According to Suzanne C Thompson, professor, Pumona College, illusion of control is the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control events, for instance, to feel that they control outcomes that they demonstrably have no influence over. Although this illusion is one of the positive illusions, its effect on different day-to-day activities is noteworthy.
In the 1970’s, Ellen Langer, a researcher from University of California, Los Angeles, demonstrated evidence for a phenomenon she called the illusion of control. Subsequent researchers corroborated this positive illusion across a number of experimental setups. Participants in a lottery experiment believed they had more control over the outcome, if they chose their numbers, rather than having them randomly assigned. Similarly, people believe they are less likely to get into a car accident if they are driving, than if they’re riding in the passenger seat. In the game of craps, gamblers tend to throw the dice harder when they need higher numbers, evidencing an implicit belief that with “skill” they can somehow control their fate.
A prominent example of this illusion is associated with vehicle driving. For example, according to Thompson, when people are asked about their likelihood of being involved in a motor vehicle accident, on average, drivers regard accidents as much less likely in “high-control” situations, such as when they are driving, than in “low-control” situations, such as when they are in the passenger seat. Thus, people rate themselves as more at risk when they are passengers compared to when they are drivers. In other situations, people might have difficulty distinguishing controllable from uncontrollable events and they might assume possessing certain skills in situations that are completely outside of their own control.
In their book, Dance with Chance, Makridakis, Hogarth, and Gaba, present an interesting real-world example of illusion of control. According to these authors, influenced by 9/11, fewer people decided to fly in the fourth quarter of 2001. Airline passengers fell by 18 per cent compared with the same 2000 period. In the same period, however, 128,525 people died in US car accidents. That’s an estimated five per cent more than expected, based on past driving patterns. The statisticians have concluded that as many as 5,000 deaths would probably have been avoided, if people had carried on taking the plane as usual. In addition, up to 45,000 people would have been spared serious injuries, and up to 325,000 less serious ones. The authors ask: “why did so many people take their car instead of the plane after 9/11?” The simple explanation is that, behind the wheel of your own automobile, it’s natural to feel in control. Thus, telling drivers that they have no influence over the skills of other road users, the weather, the condition of the road, mechanical problems, or any other common causes of accidents, they will agree. But they feel in control of their fate when they drive themselves.
A few researchers have pointed out that illusion of control is the likely driver in failure of relationships. According to Doron Gil, an expert on self-awareness and relationships, it is likely that people feel that they have a certain level of control over their life, decisions, and their outcomes. When it comes to intimate relationships, even though one might have failed time and again, one still exhibit the same harmful patterns of behaviour throughout all relationships. According to Gil, the reason is simple: As we stick to our illusionary sense of control, we believe that the way we behave with our partners is the “right” way, refusing to acknowledge and accept that this might not be the case.
Furthermore, according to Gil, this illusionary sense of control — “being certain that you know who you are, that you know how to date, that you know how to develop an intimate relationship”— often rebounds at us and stops us from realising how we sabotage our relationships.
It has been observed that illusion of control changes with our mood. For example, according to Sandra Sanger, a therapist in private practice in St. Paul, Minnesota, although most individuals operate under an illusion of control at least some of the time, depressed individuals are much less likely to harbour such illusions. When it comes to accurately assessing control, people who are depressed have a much better hold on reality. This accurate view is, perhaps surprising, given that depressed individuals are prone to all kinds of other cognitive distortions. According to Sanger, a hallmark of mental health is the ability to be flexible in behaviours and responses, and in relationship to feelings and thoughts: When you need to have control, you forgo flexibility and place a lower than necessary ceiling on your capacity for engaging in and enjoying life.
Often control in our lives is illusory. We don’t need to be depressed to take an honest look at the actual degree of control we have in different areas of our lives. The key is to think about one’s actions and that, “I really don’t have control over this at all.” That way we can begin practicing flexibility and conserve our energy for those decisions that we could actually control.
(The writer is on the faculty of Indian Institute of Technology, Mandi, India)
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