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Why You Control Less Than You Think

Illusion of control

Every day, shortly before nine o’clock, a man with a red hat stands in a square and begins to wave his cap around wildly. After five minutes, he disappears. One day, a policeman comes up to him and asks: “What are you doing?” “I’m keeping the giraffes away.” “But there aren’t any giraffes here.” “Well, I must be doing a good job, then.”

A friend with a broken leg was stuck in bed and asked me to pick up a lottery ticket for him. I went to the store, checked a few boxes, wrote his name on it, and paid. As I handed him the copy of the ticket, he balked: “Why did you fill it out? I wanted to do that. I’m never going to win anything with your numbers!” “Do you really think it affects the draw if you pick the numbers?” I inquired. He looked at me blankly.

In casinos, most people throw the dice as hard as they can if they need a high number and as gingerly as possible if they are hoping for a low number—which is as nonsensical as football fans thinking they can swing a game by gesticulating in front of the TV. Unfortunately they share this illusion with many people who also seek to influence the world by sending out the “right” thoughts (i.e., vibrations, positive energy, karma . . .).

The illusion of control is the tendency to believe that we can influence something over which we have absolutely no sway. This was discovered in 1965 by two researchers, Jenkins and Ward. Their experiment was simple, consisting of just two switches and a light. The men were able to adjust when the switches connected to the light and when not. Even when the light flashed on and off at random, subjects were still convinced that they could influence it by flicking the switches.

Or consider this example: An American researcher has been investigating acoustic sensitivity to pain. For this, he placed people in sound booths and increased the volume until the subjects signaled him to stop. The two rooms, A and B, were identical, save one thing: Room B had a red panic button on the wall. The button was purely for show, but it gave participants the feeling that they were in control of the situation, leading them to withstand significantly more noise. If you have read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Primo Levi, or Viktor Frankl, this finding will not surprise you: The idea that people can influence their destiny, even by a fraction, encouraged these prisoners not to give up hope.

Crossing the street in Los Angeles is a tricky business, but luckily, at the press of a button, we can stop traffic. Or can we? The button’s real purpose is to make us believe we have an influence on the traffic lights, and thus we’re better able to endure the wait for the signal to change with more patience. The same goes for “door-open” and “door-close” buttons in elevators: Most are not even connected to the electrical panel. Such tricks are also designed in open-plan offices: For some it will always be too hot, for others, too cold. Clever technicians create the illusion of control by installing fake temperature dials. This reduces energy bills—and complaints. Such ploys are called “placebo buttons” and they are being pushed in all sorts of realms.

Central bankers and government officials employ placebo buttons masterfully. Take, for instance, the pronouncements made by the chairman of the Federal Reserve; markets move, even though these statements inject little of tangible value into the real economy. And still we allow economic heads to continue to play with the illusory dials. It would be a real wake-up call if all involved realized the truth—that the world economy is a fundamentally uncontrollable system.

And you? Do you have everything under control? Probably less than you think. Do not think you command your way through life like a Roman emperor. Rather, you are the man with the red hat. Therefore, focus on the few things of importance that you can really influence. For everything else: Que sera, sera.

More from Rolf Dobelli MBA, Ph.D.
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More from Rolf Dobelli MBA, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today