What Is the Illusion of Control?

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What Is the Illusion of Control?

The illusion of control is a tendency to overestimate how much control you have over the outcome of uncontrollable events. This type of thinking is thought to play a role in superstitions, gambling behavior, and paranormal beliefs.

Research has found that when the outcome that people desire occurs, they tend to believe that they were the ones who were controlling it. This occurs even when people have no actual influence over what happens.

Wearing a lucky baseball cap to “help” your favorite team win is one example of this phenomenon.

Characteristics

The illusion of control can affect people in a wide variety of contexts and situations. You are probably falling prey to this illusion anytime you think your actions influence an event outside your individual control. Some characteristics of this illusion include:

  • Engaging in rituals: For example, wearing a specific lucky item or participating in rituals such as prayer to ensure that your favorite team wins a game.
  • Dwelling on regrets: Sometimes, people will ruminate over past events because they mistakenly believe they could have controlled or changed the outcome.
  • Risky behaviors: People who think they are in control of events may be more likely to engage in risky behaviors. Because they think they are controlling what happens through their own actions, they also assume that they will prevent any negative outcomes. 
  • Magical thinking: Research has found that when people try to make something happen through force of will (i.e., trying to direct the events with their own thoughts—such as willing a traffic light to change or a basketball player to make the next basket), they tend to attribute the outcome to their own thoughts.

Causes

Researchers have proposed a few different theories about why people overestimate their control over different situations and outcomes.

  • Self-esteem: One theory suggests that the illusion of control helps to maintain and enhance self-esteem. People feel better about themselves when they believe that something they wanted to happen is due to their own actions.
  • Control: Another theory is that people have a need for control, so viewing uncontrollable events as being within their control helps support mental well-being. Research has found that when people perceive things as uncontrollable, they may be more likely to experience negative emotions and decreased motivation.
  • Self-serving bias: Because the illusion of control enhances self-esteem and improves motivation, it is often framed as an example of a self-serving bias. It helps protect people from perceiving the events of their lives as being outside of their control.
  • Attribution errors: Research also suggests that people are more likely to attribute positive outcomes to their own efforts, but blame negative outcomes on other forces.
  • Personal involvement: One important factor that contributes to the illusion of control is the degree to which people are personally involved in the situation. The more likely a person will be affected by what happens, the more likely they are to believe that a good outcome was due to their actions.
  • Optimism bias: People tend to have a natural bias toward positivity known as the optimism bias. In general, people tend to overestimate the likelihood that good things will happen to them and underestimate the likelihood that bad things will occur. This bias toward positivity may contribute to the illusion that people have more influence than they truly do.

This illusion may occur because people mistake random chance for skill. However, people may also believe events are in their control of past events previously aligned with their desired outcomes.

Other Influences

This doesn’t mean that you are bound to misjudge your own level of control in every situation. Research has shown, however, that several factors can increase the likelihood of this illusion:

  • Type of feedback: When people receive feedback emphasizing success, they are more likely to feel they are in control. When feedback focuses on failure, however, people tend to feel less in control of the situation.
  • Familiarity: When people are very familiar with a situation and outcome, it is more common to experience an illusion of control.
  • Emotional involvement: This phenomenon is stronger when people have an emotional investment in what happens.
  • Mood: The effect is lessened among people who have depression. Depressed people are more likely to make negative judgments about their ability to influence what happens.
  • Performance: Doing well at the beginning of a task often leads people to think they have more control than they actually do.

Interestingly, researchers have found that people tend to underestimate their own power in situations where they actually do have high levels of control.

This suggests that people don't just overestimate their level of control—people simply tend to make imperfect estimates of their level of control in general.

Impact of the Illusion of Control

Believing you have control over uncontrollable events can have a number of significant implications. It often leads people to invest time and energy into ineffective, unhelpful, or even counterproductive actions.

You might waste time or money engaging in behaviors that don't influence the outcome at all. Those resources may have been better spent on things that do have the power to benefit your life.

While this illusion is usually viewed in a negative light, it can have positive effects. Some of the potential upsides of the illusion of control:

  • It can help you feel better about yourself: Believing those good things happen because of your own knowledge, skill, or effort can be beneficial for your self-concept.
  • It can help you feel more motivated: If you think that your own actions determine the outcome, you’re more likely to work hard to achieve a goal.
  • It prevents feelings of helplessness: Feeling like you don’t have control can have powerful negative effects, including the development of learned helplessness. This occurs when people feel that nothing they do will make any difference.
  • It may inspire healthier behaviors: When people feel that their actions will impact their health, they are more likely to engage in health-focused behaviors.

Research has found that people who have a greater sense of control engage in healthier behaviors, experience less distress, and have greater overall psychological well-being.

But while the illusion of control can motivate people to take action and feel better about themselves, it also has downsides. Since people feel they have power over situations where they largely have none, they may blame themselves and experience regret and recrimination when things don’t go their way.

Because it creates a false sense of control, it may lead people to take unnecessary risks. For example, a gambler might risk large amounts of money because they mistakenly think that their own actions have any effect on a game that relies on random chance. This can have devastating financial consequences that have long-term effects on an individual's life.

This illusion can also affect the type of risks financial traders make when they are making investments in the stock market. One study found that the more control traders felt they had over the market, the worse their actual performance was.

Another issue is that the successes tend to reinforce belief in individual control, but failures tend to be discredited or ignored. Because people only look for information that confirms their existing beliefs, it makes it more difficult to learn from past mistakes.

Instead of improving performance based on accurate feedback about what people actually have control over, the illusion of control leads people to focus their attention on things that don’t impact the outcome.

Coping

Everyone is susceptible to this illusion, but there are also things that you can do to lessen its effects and make more deliberate, accurate judgments and decisions. A few strategies that can help include:

  • Try using an outside perspective: Instead of only depending on your own thinking, consider information from the external world that might play a role in the outcome. For example, are your own actions likely to have an effect, or are there other influences that are going to also play a significant role? Taking a moment to consider those other influences may put your own role in a more realistic perspective.
  • Think scientifically: In a 2015 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, researchers suggested that scientific thinking was the best way to avoid falling for the illusion of control. People can reduce erroneous beliefs about causality and control to make better judgments by thinking through situations more scientifically.
  • Seek other people’s opinions: If you are concerned that you are assuming too much personal responsibility to influence the outcome of something in your life, consider asking others for their opinions. This can be a great way to gain some outside perspective and consider other causal factors that you perhaps hadn’t thought about.

While illusory control often centers on positive outcomes, these beliefs sometimes focus on avoiding negative outcomes. For example, not walking under a ladder is a superstition rooted in the idea that a person can prevent bad luck by not engaging in a specific behavior.

Research has found that considering alternative explanations may help reduce the illusion of control when people are focused on positive outcomes. However, one study found that the opposite is true when the situation involves avoiding a negative outcome. When an action is followed by an undesirable outcome, reminding people of other factors that might influence that outcome can actually increase the illusion of control.

In the case of superstitious behavior, for example, telling people that bad luck is more likely caused by random chance and not by their own behavior tends to increase their belief that they are personally responsible for any negative events that follow.

In most cases, however, thinking critically and scientifically is the best way to avoid being deceived by the illusion of control.

Consider learning more about the steps in the scientific method and then try applying these methods to different situations in your life. Looking for information that disputes your existing beliefs, for example, can help reduce your overreliance on your own limited perspective.

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