CABLab Blog

The Irony and Tyranny of Control

Updated: Dec 13, 2020

In fiction, it grips us. In life, we take control. Unraveling mankind’s degree of freedom or free will has been a quintessential question for our existence. Science has come a long way in explaining the nature of our physical determinism, paving a very powerful and clear way to understand freedom of the will. One of the most popular strands of research on the brain correlates of free will was pioneered by Libet (1983), which showed the allegedly unconscious intentions taking place in decisions regarded as free and voluntary. However, the recent studies are not as discouraging but rather redefine our sense of control and elucidates the nature of our behavior. Free will is an emerging contributor to the philosophical discourse in cognitive neuroscience and is closely related to a popular cognitive bias that invades our everyday behavior -- Illusory control.

Haven’t we all pressed the elevator button multiple times, just to make it come “faster” or close “quicker”, though we know that it has no control over the speed of the elevator arriving or the doors closing?

You’re playing a game of dice with your friend. The game gets harder and you need a 6 to get ahead. Do you roll the dice harder? If you want a lesser number, would you roll it slower?

Studies have shown that people tend to exert more control if they want a higher number on dice and lesser control if they want a lower number (Henslin, 1967; Langer & Roth, 1975). This sense of control and belief that we have about random chance events is described in scientific research as the Illusion of Control -- a strong desire to control a purely random event despite often realizing its irrationality. We often feel like we’re able to influence events in some way despite knowing when something is a matter of random chance.

Ellen Langer, who first demonstrated the illusion of control, was confused between skill and chance situations. She proposed that we make judgments of control based on “skill cues”, however it was later found that we associated our intention to win with an action. This “control heuristic” brings in a feeling of a degree of control over the outcome.

In picking a lottery, people choose between their lucky and unlucky numbers and pick the one that they believe will bring fortune.

Like all evolved capacities, behaviors, or traits that occur universally across cultures are evolutionarily adaptive. Accordingly, the illusion of control is often posited as a “positive illusion”. The adaptive effects of optimistic beliefs about control and performance motivate people to persist at tasks which they might otherwise give up. But, We are Optimists to a Fault -- we want to believe that things will turn out well for us. We weigh optimistic predictions more heavily than pessimistic ones. One of the increasingly alarming harmful effects is seen in Gambling. A game of pure chance wherein people keep betting, despite having already lost large amounts of money. In this way, illusory control puts us at risk of making bad decisions because we are encouraged to think that we have more control than we do. Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow explains this cognitive bias as part of System 1 Thinking; which is automatic and outside of our control.

Irrational as they may be, we all have a superstition or two. Whether it’s a lucky pair of pants or an aversion to black cats on a hopeful day, superstitions give us meaning to the often random nature of our existence. Not to forget that our brains are wired to come up with causal explanations for things, even when they are not justified (Matute et. al., 2015). A popular phrase in statistics “Correlation does not imply causation" styles the underlying mechanism of the illusion of causality that biases our everyday thinking. We interpret things that happen to us as being consequences of something that we did, when in fact, we had nothing to do with them (Catania & Cutts, 1963). A popular example being Homeopathic medicine, which although is not scientifically proven to be effective, research often ascribes its popularity to the illusion of control. The robust patient-practitioner relationship is considered a significant contributor to its success (Mille