Are You in Control?


Most people are familiar with the Serenity Prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”


Whether or not you believe in a higher power, there is much worth unpacking in that one sentence. It not only speaks to our need for serenity and courage, but suggests that the ability to assess what is and what is not in our control requires wisdom.


Unfortunately, due to a persistent cognitive bias, we often fail to accurately assess whether we have any control over a given situation.


What about you?

Do you ever cross your fingers at pivotal moments when your favorite team is playing?


Does it feel like you can make it rain by washing your car?


If you play the lottery, do you choose your own numbers?


When your child misbehaves, do you blame yourself?


These are all examples of what psychologist Ellen Langer termed “the illusion of control.” We humans have a strong motivation to control our environment and a preference to feel that control, even when we don’t actually have any.


It is part of our propensity to see patterns where none exist and it often feels like intuition. Your gut feeling is that if you don't wear your lucky socks, your team will lose.


One of Langer’s experiments pitted two people against each other to see who could cut a deck of playing cards to a higher card. People bet more money when they were playing against someone who appeared awkward and unconfident. They apparently felt they could “out-cut” their opponent even though there was no skill involved. They had no control.


She also looked at how people felt about lottery tickets. Players placed a higher value on tickets with numbers they selected themselves than on random quick picks, even though research shows neither method yields an advantage. Being involved in the process gives us a feeling of control. (Logic says you should just do the quick pick because, well, it’s quicker. Of course, if logic was involved you wouldn’t be playing the lottery at all!)


The illusion is strongest when we are in stressful, competitive, or highly emotional situations. Also, people in positions of stature and power are more likely to perceive control when they don’t actually have it.


Pluses and minuses

There are actually benefits to the illusion of control. It is a counter-balance to “learned helplessness” where we feel like we have no control over anything. Sometimes there are small things you really can control but you miss because it’s easier to throw up your hands in despair. The feeling of control can also motivate us to persevere in daunting environments.


However, it IS an illusion. Any unrecognized distortion of reality can cause us to make irrational and suboptimal decisions. For example, a study of day traders showed that traders who were most susceptible to this illusion performed the worst in their trading activities.


It also diverts our focus away from things we truly can control. We can’t control every move our kids make but we shouldn’t throw our hands up and proclaim, “Oh well, kids will be kids!” Our guidance and love still makes a difference.


Another consequence of illusory control is that we blame ourselves for negative outcomes even when they are caused by random circumstances. If we felt like we had some control over the outcome, then it must have been our fault when things didn't work out. (This is outcome bias at its best.)


Discerning when we do and don’t have control is tricky, but following some of the best practices of decision performance can help. Here are a few:


1) Use your team. Our cognitive biases are easier for other people to recognize, so working within a team can help you avoid making a decision that will have no effect in achieving what you think it will.


2) Think in terms of causality. If you feel you have control over a potential outcome, you should be able to explain exactly how your action will affect the outcome.


3) Employ the methods of scientific thinking. Question and test your hypotheses and beliefs with an open willingness to adjust them as evidence dictates.


Finally, even if you are not a believer in the power of prayer, adopt the tenets of the serenity prayer and seek serenity, courage and wisdom as you assess your potential impact on all of life’s challenges and opportunities.


Think well and be well!


- Steve Haffner


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