Sunday, February 17, 2008

Illusion of Control

Last week at the Medical Sciences Division (Oxford University) one of the subjects we explored follows on nicely from the last blog, illusions of control. In 1995 Langer wrote a paper in which he showed that many people tend to believe that they can control and change events that are in fact beyond their control. Even during truly random events like the lottery, rolling dice etc. people often believe that they have the skills and attributes to change or influence the events. Such a belief is not confined to individuals. Teams also fall foul of this decision making bias, which because others are involved in the bias, usually removes all doubt of the entire group that they can in fact influence events that when examined somewhat more objectively are beyond the control of the individuals and teams concerned.

The question, as I frequently ask lecture and workshop participants, is; So What?

When you think about the decisions governments, boards and committees make for example, you don’t need to go too far to see the effect of ‘illusion of control’ playing out. That some policy or other actions can do things like reduce crime, increase educational attainment, solve market related issues and so on. This does not mean that I am not a believer in action, only that many actions we take and assume have solved whatever the problem is, have not in themselves been the solution. It has often rather been some other effect like regression fallacy etc.

There are a couple of interesting things here worth mentioning:

The first is that the cognitive bias we develop called the ‘illusion of control’ is frequently a response to ambiguity. Disambiguating something beyond our control appears to help emotionally. Ok it doesn’t lead to good decisions but we feel a whole lot better. A nice example of this is the difference between being passenger on a plane and the varying degrees of ill-ease felt say compared to the pilots who have a sense of control. A smaller effect can be felt often driving your own car or being a passenger in someone else’s. Yesterday I flew to Riyadh (where I am now) and was asleep when the plane hit a patch of really bad turbulence. I found myself sitting up and becoming alert, just in case. In case of what??? I found myself reasoning that we were 37,000 feet up flying at 550 MPH. If anything went wrong what was I going to do about it? Sod all really apart from probably scream and even then for what purpose? It just felt better to be alert and have the illusion of control even though in reality I had zero control over the situation. I was just trying to disambiguate the situation and (this is an important point) feel better – the emotional connection again. Once I realised what I was doing I relaxed, gave myself up to the uncertainty of the situation, stopped disambiguating and fell asleep!

The second is something called activity bias. More of which next blog. Oh and we will cover the recency effect as well!

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