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 (Miller, Colloca, & Kaptchuk, 2009).

Langer (1975) suggested that the illusion of control is the inverse of learned helplessness. This makes it rather counterintuitive in regards to the clinical population. Learned Helplessness is a phenomenon observed when individuals are conditioned to expect pain or unpleasant stimuli without a way to escape it (Cherry, 2017). Despite the opportunity to escape, the person stops trying to avoid the pain due to prior conditioning. An interesting implication of learned helplessness theory is that similar to Depressed people, people exposed to uncontrollable events will be less likely than non-depressed people to succumb to an illusion of control. This is consistent with theories of depression that portray the depressive as a person who believes that he or she is powerless to obtain desired outcomes. However, according to the Egotism hypothesis, the subsequent behavior of human subjects previously exposed to uncontrollable events reflects an attempt to protect self-esteem rather than the effects of a generalized expectation of no control (Alloy & Abramson, 1982). This interplay of self-esteem, learned helplessness and the illusion of control is an interesting drift in clinical research. Meanwhile, individuals with Schizophrenia show a robust illusion of control, particularly those with hallucinations (Moritz, Thompson & Andreou, 2014).

Can the illusory control be controlled? We are complex organisms actively pursuing our interests in a changing environment. Until science finds the absolute answer, we can be grateful that it’s more than random chance. Cognitive biases are not a matter of intelligence. It’s an inbuilt automatic thinking process that can be avoided by regular and deliberate rational thinking. By building capacity for intentional agency, strengthening your ability to choose among alternative possibilities while keeping aside intuition, and acquiring the scientific knowledge about mechanisms of the mind, we can build the starter pack to go around this faulty thinking process. I hope you see how closely aligned the concepts of free will and illusory control are. If the illusions of control can be controlled, free will in its corresponding definition can be contingent on this agency. To keep it brief and hopeful, learning and memory offer an example of how the downward causal effect shapes the underlying physics. Eventually, after enough conditioning, learning changes structure at the macro scale, which goes top-down to alter micro connections. Therefore, the illusion of control can indeed be kept under control.

Can you think of more examples of Illusory control in our daily lives? Please feel free to leave comments! This article is written post the Journal club presentation on a similar topic.

(Disclaimer: Any views or opinions represented in this blog article are personal and belong solely to the author, and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the author may be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated.)


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  8. Matute Greño, H., Blanco, F., Yarritu, I., Díaz-Lago, M., Vadillo, M. A., & Barberia, I. (2015). Illusions of causality: How they bias our everyday thinking and how they could be reduced. Frontiers in Psychology, 2015, 6(888).

  9. Miller, F. G., Colloca, L., & Kaptchuk, T. J. (2009). The placebo effect: illness and interpersonal healing. Perspectives in biology and medicine, 52(4), 518.

  10. Moritz, S., Thompson, S. C., & Andreou, C. (2014). Illusory control in schizophrenia. Journal of Experimental Psychopathology, 5(2), 113-122.

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