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.


This is our uncanny tendency to search for, or interpret, information that agrees with our preconceptions. For example, if you suspect that a certain person is a certain way (whether it be evil, lazy, or perfect), you will tend to notice and interpret that person's behaviors in such a way that support your belief, and consider evidence to the contrary as the result of errors of your own perception and judgement, or anomalies.

This is why, in the scientific method, it is useful to conduct an experiment in such a way as to attempt to disprove your theory, rather than prove it.  In order for something to be true, it has to also be falsifiable.  In other words, there has to be a way to prove it to be false, and those ways have to be tested, in order for it to be considered true. 

The best way to help correct for this bias is to be open to contradictory evidence and to test our hypothesii by attempting to prove them wrong.

Read more: Confirmation Bias [Skeptics Dictionary] 

The purpose of this exercise is to learn more about why you like some things and don't like others. Preference is a very powerful force in our personalities, and by taking it apart a little and looking to see which mechanisms are at work when creating your preferences, you can learn to fiddle with the algorithm a little to make sure you like things that you actually want to like, and that you don't like things that you don't want to like.

Sounds complicated, but a very important aspect of preference (and desire in general) is that there are two levels to it:

  1. What you want
  2. What you want to want

You might want chocolate, but want to want salad. You might want television, but want to want exercise. When thinking about this exercise, try to figure out if the thing you are retrying is something you want, or something you want to want. The happiest life is one where you both want, and want to want, the same things while also not liking the things you don't want to like.

The sources of like:

What causes us to like something and what causes us not to like something? Are things inherently likable and dislikable, or is there something that happens between the thing and yourself (a relationship, or an aesthetic) that creates a likable or dislikable quality to emerge? I argue the latter. Here are a few things that might influence your judgement of a new thing:

  1. Do you already like or dislike this thing? If you know that you dislike brocolli, you will most likely continue to dislike it each time you come across it, even if you do not taste it each time.
  2. Do you already have a preference for the general class of thing? If you come across a new green vegetable, and you have an existing dislike of green vegetables, it's likely that you will apply the general rule to the specific new vegetable.
  3. Does the environment or group your in have a preference? If you are in a group that strongly prefers sipping expensive wines, and you are relatively new to the field of wine-tasting and have no overwhelming preference for cheap or expensive wines, you may be influenced to adopt the group's preference for expensive wines. Likewise, if you live in a liberal city, you will most likely adopt liberal views. This happens because the environment will influence the evidence and data you receive for making a preference… you will only get good evidence and data about expensive wines when you're around people that love expensive wines, and you will only hear bad data about conservative viewpoints when you're around liberals. It's not that you necessarily adopt the views of those around you, it's just that the environment filters the information you receive about the thing being judged to favor the decisions that the group made.
  4. Is there pressure to form a quick opinion? In some social situations, making a decision is difficult because none of the choices stand out as distinctly better than the others. For example, when choosing which new blockbuster movie to watch on a Sunday afternoon. In these situations, people with preferences are rewarded by being decision makers and leaders. It doesn't really matter which option is taken, as long as it provokes action in the group. After a decision is made, it's then much easier to confabulate reasons that it is the best option, strengthening the power of the preference that was originally weak.

In this way, preferences can be created by cascading down a series of decision making systems. The interesting thing is that because preferences are reinforced each time they are invoked, what quickly began as a weak preference will strengthen over time into a much more powerful preference. The possibility then exists that there are very strong preferences in our own personalities that may or may not justify the strength of their preference.

Identify a few strong preferences of your own

I used to strongly dislike zoos. It all went back to one childhood experience where I felt bad about an animal at a zoo. Over the years, disliking zoos became "a thing", if you know what I mean. A thing that felt as much a part of me as my sense of self. I was a zoo-disliker. I was a also a Halloween-disliker. I was an avocado-disliker. However, once I started retrying these things, I often found that the only reason I continued to dislike them was because I had disliked them at some point in the past.

By letting go of that past preference, and the opinion that blossoms from it, I get to let the object cascade once again down the waterfall of experience to see if there was any continuing evidence supporting the preference. In the case of zoos I discovered that my dislike of them was a little lopsided and that while I may object to some of the principles behind the caging of beautiful natural animals, that I could enjoy learning about animals and engaging them in person. My preference, it turned out, had been more positively reinforced by the personal satisfaction I got from stating the opinion and being the kind of person that cared for animals than it had by the actual zoo itself. There's a strange kind of pride in preference. Which isn't necessarily bad in itself, but it might be worth investigating which things you store your pride in… are they all things you want to take pride in? And are you consistently interested in the object of pride? In the case of zoos, why did I take self-righteous pride in not supporting the enslavement of animals when I took opposite pride in eating meat? It's important to notice inconsistency in yourself and acknowledge it, not necessarily to reconcile it right away, but simply so that you can learn to not take yourself and your preferences so seriously.

Related Links:

Interesting little test to see whether or not you can recall details of a picture that's only flashed for a quarter of a second.  I failed miserably but maybe you'll do better.

Link: What can you remember in a glimpse? [Cogntive Daily via Mind Hacks

Our culture has become highly favorable to the conscious, deliberate, weighed decision as favorable to making “gut decisions” or decisions “on a feeling”, which are left more as anecdotal or possibly superstitious practices for quality decision making. However, we’re slowly finding scientific studies that validate and illuminate techniques for incorporating our subconscious into making decisions regarding complicated problems.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the magical number 7 plus or minus 2 that George A. Miller proposed in 1956 as the limit for the amount of information that we can hold in our short-term memory at a given time. I just read via wikipedia that this has been found to be slightly inaccurate. The real limit may actually be time-based: the amount of sound that we can store in our working memories. Rather than 7 chunks of data, the real limit may be about 2 seconds of sound. For example, the limit for people who speak faster (such as the Chinese) is closer to 9 plus or minus 2, and for the Welsh the number is closer to 6 plus or minus two.

In any case, most cognitive psychologists do believe that the short-term memory (or working memory) that we use to manipulate information with our consciousness differs structurally and functionally from long-term memory. To move information from working memory to long-term memory requires a physical change in the neurons of the brain to occur… something that can occur while awake, but is also strongly linked with the activities of the brain during sleep.

The implications of this are pretty interesting and can be practically applied to your own decision-making. Say that you’re trying to decide whether or not you should move to a new city. Recent studies show that decisions which have fewer than 10 factors or so are better made the old fashioned way: consciously and deliberately. However, for decisions which have more than 10 or so factors, people who “sleep on it” are more likely to make a better choice, and less likely to regret their choice, than people who don’t sleep on it, or even people who make their decision based on a long lists of pros and cons.

However, a key distinction here is that the problem must be introduced before you sleep. So, to try this out, simply review a difficult problem in your life for a few minutes before you go to sleep. Try to conjure up as many of the factors involved as you can, warming them up in a way. Then, fall asleep and when you wake up, check how does your gut feel about the decision?

To read more about the exact studies conducted in this area, check out these additional articles: