Illusion of control

“Perhaps the strangest thing about this illusion of control is not that it happens but that it seems to confer many of the psychological benefits of genuine control. In fact, the one group of people who seem generally immune to this illusion are the clinically depressed, who tend to estimate accurately the degree to which they can control events in most situation.”

― Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness



The illusion of control is another example of cognitive biases in our brains, which shows the limits of rational decision-making in humans. It refers to the tendency in humans to believe that they have more control over outcomes than they actualy do. The term was first coined by Langer (1975), which he defines as ‘an expectancy of a personal success probability inappropriately higher than the objective probability would warrant.’

Put simply, we overestimate our abilities in influencing the outcomes in the real world.

In his paper, Langer conducted six experiments on several different randomly selected subjects to check whether humans actually overestimate their levels of control over the external outcomes. For instance, in one of the experiments, lottery participants were given a choice of ticket, while others received a lottery ticket randomly. Consequently, the participants were offered the chance of exchanging their tickets with ones that were for a lottery with higher chances of winning. Even though the alternative lottery had more favorable odds, those people who had chosen their own tickets tend to not exchange them. This behavior seems to suggest that people who had chosen their own tickets, felt as if they had some sort of control over the outcome.

In another study, Alloy and Abramson (1979) carried out a test, in which participants tried to get a green light by pushing a button. There was no connection between pushing the button and getting the green light. Subjects were divided into two groups: the first group would receive the green light 25% of the time, and the other one would receive it 75% of the time. Subjects in the latter group felt a much more sense of control in bringing out the green light than the first group.

Human beings need to be able to have some sense of control over what happens around them. Lefcourt (1973) states that merely knowing that one can exert control, redues the negative effects of an outside stimuli.

Thompson (1999) asks an interesting question, “which is the correct view: that illusory thinking is generally useful because it leads to positive emotions and motivates people to try challenging tasks, or that people are better off if they have an accurate assessment of themselves and their situation?” She adds that illusion of control may be helpful in tough and pressuring situations, but they can also lead to risky behavior in many situations, such as gambling.


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Further reading

Langer, E. J. (1975). The illusion of control.

Alloy, L. B., & Abramson, L. Y. (1979). Judgment of contingency in depressed and nondepressed students: Sadder but wiser?

Lefcourt, H. M. (1973). The function of the illusions of control and freedom.

Thompson, S. (1999). Illusions of Control: How We Overestimate Our Personal Influence