The Illusion of Control
When I was a kid, I was always fascinated by magic tricks. Whether it was simple coin tricks or watching David Copperfield walk through the Great Wall of China on television, I always wanted to know: How do they do that?
By the time I finished training as a therapist, I had learned to focus on entirely different kinds of magic tricks, or illusions – the kinds that we consciously and unconsciously create all of the time. The question pressing on me shifted: Why do we do that? Why do we, as seemingly rational, well-intentioned people go around deluding ourselves on a regular basis?
In the 1970’s, Ellen Langer, a researcher from UCLA, demonstrated evidence for a phenomenon she called the illusion of control. Subsequent researchers corroborated this so-called positive illusion across a number of experimental set-ups.
Participants in a lottery experiment believed they had more control over the outcome if they chose their numbers rather than having them randomly assigned. People believe they are less likely to get into a car accident if they are driving than if they’re riding in the passenger seat. In the game of craps, gamblers tend to throw the dice harder when they need higher numbers, evidencing an implicit belief that with “skill” they can somehow control their fortune.
Time and again, research has demonstrated that intelligence, knowledge, and reason notwithstanding, people often believe that they have control over events in their lives, even when such control is impossible.
Like all research in psychology, there is uncertainty as to how these experimental results translate to real-life scenarios. There is also some dispute about the mechanism underlying the illusion of control. Even so, and taking the research results with a grain of salt, it is probably safe to say that we have less control in our lives than we might like to think.
The issue of control is ubiquitous in my practice as a therapist. Clients wish they could control others, detest feeling out of control, fear being controlled by others. And let’s face it, there are times when my own illusion of control directs fantasies of wielding more influence in my clients’ lives than is surely possible. If only I could wave the magic wand that, spoken or not, many clients seem to long for.
Interestingly, later researchers learned that although most individuals operate under an illusion of control at least some of the time, depressed individuals are much less likely to harbor such illusions. When it comes to accurately assessing control, people who are depressed have a much better grip on reality.
This accurate view is perhaps surprising, given than depressed individuals are prone to all kinds of other cognitive distortions. Not surprisingly, however, researchers have also found evidence of a pessimism bias in depressed people, which is exactly what it sounds like: an Eeyore-ification of the world, a donning of dun-colored glasses.
A perennial theme among my clients involves going beyond a simple wish for more control, and extending into the realm of a driving need for control. The former usually comes with a reluctant sigh of acknowledgment that our spheres of influence are not just finite, they are actually quite small. The latter often comes dished up with a heavy serving of denial and a bad case of the tail wagging the dog. The need for control ends up controlling the individual.
We all know people who hold on tightly to a need for control. Things need to be just so. They panic when circumstances change. “Letting go” is not in their vocabulary. I would imagine that it is these individuals who are most prone to relying on the illusion of control to bolster their hope that holding on tightly will provide the kind of security they crave.
A hallmark of mental health is the ability to be flexible – in behaviors and responses, and in relationship to feelings and thoughts. When you need to have control, you forgo flexibility and place a lower than necessary ceiling on your capacity for engaging in and enjoying life.
Ironically, there can be more “control” in a flexible position than in one marked by efforts to keep everything within a narrowly defined comfort zone. It’s like trying to hold on to a water balloon. The more tightly you try to grasp it, the more likely it is to just burst. If, instead, you gently and flexibly cup the balloon in your open palm, you’re much more able to “control” its movement without getting all wet.
It’s important to remember that control in our lives is often illusory. You don’t need to be depressed to take an honest look at the actual degree of control you have in different areas of your life. Once you’ve determined, “Hey, I really don’t have control over this at all,” you can begin practicing flexibility and conserve your energy for those matters that you really can influence.