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Illusion of control

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Illusion of control is the tendency for human beings to believe they can control or at least influence outcomes of which researchers deem them to have no influence over. Prayer, superstitions and postulated paranormal powers underline the limitations of science to falsify many of these "illusory" controls.

The predominant paradigm in research on unrealistic perceived control has been Ellen Langer’s (1975) “illusion of control”. Langer showed that people often behave as if chance events are accessible to personal control. In a series of experiments, Langer demonstrated first the prevalence of the illusion of control and second, that people were more likely to behave as if they could exercise control in a chance situation where “skill cues” were present. By skill cues, Langer meant properties of the situation more normally associated with the exercise of skill, in particular the exercise of choice, competition, familiarity with the stimulus and involvement in decisions.

One simple form of this fallacy is found in casinos: when rolling dice in craps, it has been shown that people tend to throw harder for high numbers and softer for low numbers. Under some circumstances, experimental subjects have been induced to believe that they could affect the outcome of a purely random coin toss. Subjects who guessed a series of coin tosses more successfully began to believe that they were actually better guessers, and believed that their guessing performance would be less accurate if they were distracted.

Taylor & Brown (1988), have argued that positive illusions are adaptive as they increase motivation and persistence. This position is supported by Albert Bandura's claim that ‘optimistic self-appraisals of capability, that are not unduly disparate from what is possible, can be advantageous, whereas veridical judgements can be self-limiting’ (Bandura, 1989, p.1177). We should, however, note here Bandura’s use of the qualification ‘not unduly disparate from what is possible’. His argument is essentially concerned with the adaptive effect of optimistic beliefs about control and performance in circumstances where control is possible, rather than perceived control in circumstances where outcomes are genuinely non-contingent on an individual’s behaviour.

Bandura has also suggested that: "In activities where the margins of error are narrow and missteps can produce costly or injurious consequences, personal well-being is best served by highly accurate efficacy appraisal." (1997, p71)

Taylor and Brown argue that positive illusions are adaptive, since there is evidence that they are more common in normally mentally healthy individuals than in depressed individuals. However, Pacini, Muir and Epstein (1998) have shown that this may be because depressed people overcompensate for a tendency toward maladaptive intuitive processing by exercising excessive rational control in trivial situations, and note that the difference with non-depressed people disappears in more consequential circumstances.

There is also empirical evidence that high self-efficacy can be maladaptive in some circumstances. In a scenario-based study, Whyte et al. (1997) showed that participants in whom they had induced high self-efficacy were significantly more likely to escalate commitment to a failing course of action. Knee and Zuckerman (1998) have challenged the definition of mental health used by Taylor and Brown and argue that lack of illusions is associated with a non-defensive personality oriented towards growth and learning and with low ego involvement in outcomes. They present evidence that self-determined individuals are less prone to these illusions.

Fenton-O'Creevy et al (2003) argue, as do Gollwittzer and Kinney (1989), that while illusory beliefs about control may promote goal striving, they are not conducive to sound decision-making. Illusions of control may cause insensitivity to feedback, impede learning and predispose toward greater objective risk taking (since subjective risk will be reduced by illusion of control).

In a study of the illusion of control in a population of traders working in investment banks, Fenton-O'Creevy et al (2003, 2004) found that traders who were prone to high illusion of control had significantly worse performance on analysis, risk management and contribution to desk profits. They also earned significantly less.

One important explanation for illusion of control may lie in self-regulation theory. To the extent that people are driven by internal goals concerned with the exercise of control over their environment, they will seek to reassert control in conditions of chaos, uncertainty or stress. Failing genuine control, one coping strategy will be to fall back on defensive attributions of control - leading to illusions of control (Fenton-O'Creevy et al, 2003).

See also

References & Bibliography

  • Bandura, A. (1989). Human Agency in Social Cognitive Theory. American Psychologist, 44(9), 1175-1184.
  • Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.
  • Fenton-O’Creevy, M., Nicholson, N. and Soane, E., Willman, P. Traders - Risks, Decisions, and Management in Financial Markets ISBN 0-19-926948-3
  • Fenton-O’Creevy, M., Nicholson, N. and Soane, E., Willman, P. (2003) Trading on illusions: Unrealistic perceptions of control and trading performance. Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology 76, 53-68.
  • Gollwitzer, P. M., & Kinney, R. F. (1989). Effects of Deliberative and Implemental Mind-Sets On Illusion of Control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56(4), 531-542.
  • Henslin, J. M. (1967). Craps and magic. American Journal of Sociology 73, 316-330.
  • Knee, C. R., & Zuckerman, M. (1998). A nondefensive personality: Autonomy and control as moderators of defensive coping and self-handicapping. Journal of Research in Personality, 32(2), 115-130.
  • Langer, E. J. & Roth, J. (1975). Heads I win, tails it's chance: The illusion of control as a function of the sequence of outcomes in a purely chance task. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 34, 191-198.
  • Langer, E. J. (1982). The Illusion of Control. In Kahneman D., Slovic P., & Tversky, A. (Eds.). Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. New York: Cambridge University Press
  • Pacini, R., Muir, F., & Epstein, S. (1998). Depressive realism from the perspective of cognitive-experiential self-theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(4), 1056-1068.
  • Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and Well-Being - a Social Psychological Perspective On Mental-Health. Psychological Bulletin, 103(2), 193-210.
  • Whyte, G., Saks, A. & Hook, S. (1997) When success breeds failure: The role of self-efficacy in escalating commitment to a losing course of action. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 18, 415-432.

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