Illusion of Control (Cognitive Bias #10)

August 25, 2006

This is the tendency to believe that you control, or at least partially influence, things that you do not.   For example, that by leaning to one side after you have bowled a definite gutter ball you might influence it to move back towards the center.  Okay, not really… but I do do that sometimes.

This is the fuzzy land of superstitions that you don’t really believe rationally but which you still engage in emotionally.  If you had $100 bet on the outcome of a coin toss, what would you do?  Loosen up your shoulders?  Hop up and down?  Toss the coin up high, or keep it low?  People who win a lot of coin tosses in a row might begin to feel like they’re better guessers.  They might get angry with you if you try to make them lose their concentration.
One question I have about this bias is whether or not it is a harmful one.  What are the consequences of feeling like you’re actually playing the video game even though you haven’t put any coins in it and it’s on demo mode?  What side effects are there to screaming at the television telling the character not to go into the basement when they will sure get killed?  Does it give you a false sense of confidence that eventually leads you making choices that lead to failure?  It seems like if that were the case, that the illusion of control would correct itself over time… leading to a sense of control that was fairly accurate.  In other words, if the illusion of control was harmful, it would eventually lead you to believe that your control of things was harmful and therefore make you try to control things less in order to not harm them.  However, if the illusion of control has neutral or positive benefits, then that would explain why it stuck around… it would self-reinforce itself.

If you think about it with squinty eyes, you can even see how optimism and the “go get ’em” attitude of many very successful people involves an element of this illusion of control.  It’s in that first split second of coming across a chance event or occurance that might end up being in your favor or against it… do you shy away from it, look at it indifferently, or take it on as something you can influence?  And which reaction leads to the best outcomes?

Walking through this list of biases has been very interesting for me due to this strange confusion about their role and impact on the practical matters of how our brain works.  They exist because they often lead to a net gain somehow… they are shortcuts and assumptions that we can’t help but make if we are to have any hope of processing as much information as we do on a daily basis.  And yet at some point every shortcut will reveal flaws and occassionally steer us wrong.  At which point should we meet the bias and say, “Thank you for your shortcut, but I will take it from here”?  This is the relationship we must become aware of, between the conscious and the subconscious.  Between the fast, cheap, and general, to the slow, expensive, and specific.

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