Illusions of Control

We are prone to both overestimating and underestimating control.

Posted Jul 18, 2018

Most elevators have some form of a “close door” button. Impatient elevator riders the world over push that button when they want the elevator to get moving. Unbeknownst to them, their button-pushing efforts are useless. The vast majority of building managers and elevator programmers think they know when the doors should close and have deactivated the button. Pushing the button has no effect, yet people continue to push it. This is just one example of the “illusion of control”: Acting as if we control something that we don’t. 

Illusions of control represent one of several “positive illusions” documented in psychological research. Such illusions might indeed be positive if they prompt people to take confident action and persist in the face of discouragement. But when an illusion of control leads us to persist where our efforts are useless, its results not positive. Overestimating how much we control can lead us to make tragic and costly errors, such as refusing medical treatment in the false belief that, for instance, cancer can be cured by good thoughts or laughter. When Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003, he was reluctant to hand over control of his treatment to his physicians. They were recommending surgery and chemotherapy. Jobs, an irrepressibly confident man, sought treatment with acupuncture, herbal remedies, and a special diet.1 When he ultimately agreed to surgery, his cancer had grown so large that parts of his pancreas, gall bladder, stomach, bile duct, and small intestine had to be removed. He died in 2011.

Corporations seek to influence consumer perceptions of their products through advertising. However, there is precious little evidence of its effectiveness. Department store tycoon John Wannamaker gave voice to this skepticism when he complained, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The trouble is, I don’t know which half.” Instead, companies act as if they can control consumer choices through advertising without ever truly testing the theory. In order to test the effectiveness of advertising, companies would need to run randomized controlled trials in which some consumers are selected at random to view ads and some see nothing. How often do companies conduct proper experimental tests? Just about never.

In fact, it is rare for any of us to put our beliefs about control to the test. When companies have actually tested whether their advertising works, they often find surprising results, such as eBay’s revelation that the return on its advertising investment might actually be negative.2

So is it wiser to assume we’re not in control of either our own health or of how customers view us?  That can lead to the opposite error: to be under-confident about what we can control. It is easy to identify tragic missed opportunities that can arise from this belief. People fail to take control of situations that they could control. Failing to appreciate the ways in which we control our own destinies can lead to resignation when, had we been more confident, we would have asserted control. This sense of powerlessness pervades attitudes about coping with addiction, implementing political change, and changing the cultures of the teams or organizations in which we work.

To pick another common example, consider weight loss. Over two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, and most of them would like to lose weight.3  It is no surprise what leads people to lose weight: fewer donuts and more perspiration. Yet many people have resigned themselves to obesity. In 2013 the American Medical Association decided to recognize obesity as a disease. There is reason for concern that this official designation leads obese people to feel a decreased sense of personal control. In one study, the researchers randomly assigned some participants to read about the AMA’s decision and some of its accompanying consequences, such as health insurance payments for obesity-related drugs, surgeries, counseling, and reduced stigma.4 This message led to a decrease in obese people’s intention to diet. If more Americans give up trying to exert self-control over their calorie consumption, it would be an unfortunate consequence of the AMA’s 2013 decision.  

There are real benefits to having the courage to be honest with yourself about how good you are, how much you control, and where your efforts are most likely to pay off. This requires evidence-based confidence that is informed by facts and driven by honest self-reflection instead of wishful thinking. This would represent good calibration of your confidence, and it would lead to greater odds that your persistence will pay off. It is nicely summarized by the serenity prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” 

References

1. W. Isaacson, Steve Jobs (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2011).

2. T. Blake, C. Nosko, S. Tadelis, Consumer Heterogeneity and Paid Search Effectiveness: A Large Scale Field Experiment. Econometrica. 83, 155–174 (2015).

3. C. D. Fryar, M. D. Carroll, C. L. Ogden, Prevalence of Overweight, Obesity, and Extreme Obesity Among Adults: United States, Trends 1960–1962 Through 2009–2010. CDC (2014), (available at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/obesity_adult_09_10/obesity_adult_09_10.htm).

4. C. L. Hoyt, J. L. Burnette, L. Auster-Gussman, “Obesity Is a Disease”: Examining the Self-Regulatory Impact of This Public-Health Message. Psychol. Sci. (2014), doi:10.1177/0956797613516981.