Langer’s Illusion of Control

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illusion of control

The illusion of control refers to people’s inclination to overestimate their power to control events. It was named by Ellen Langer, a psychologist from the United States, and is thought to impact gambling behavior and paranormal beliefs. The illusion of control, like illusory superiority and optimism bias, is a positive illusion.

The illusion could arise because a person lacks direct introspective insight into whether they have influence over circumstances. This is known as the introspection illusion.

Instead, they may assess their level of control using a process that is frequently inaccurate. As a result, there is a tendency for people to believe they have more control over outcomes with which they have little or no causal link.

For example, in one study, college students used an elevator in a virtual reality setting to cure their fear of heights. Those who were told they had control but did not actually have it felt as powerful as those who did. Those who were persuaded to feel they had no control reported having little control.

Illusion of Control Causes and Contributing Factors

Psychologist Ellen Langer, who first showed the illusion of control, interpreted her findings as a misinterpretation of skill and chance scenarios. She argued that people base their control assessments on “skill cues”.

Competitiveness, familiarity, and individual choice are examples of situational characteristics commonly linked with skill-based games. When more of these skill indications are present, the illusion becomes stronger.

Suzanne Thompson and colleagues suggested in 1998 that Langer’s explanation failed to account for all of the effect’s variations. As an alternative, they proposed that judgments regarding control are actually based on a method known as the “control heuristic”.

This theory posits that evaluations of control are based on two conditions: an intent to create the outcome and a link between the action and the outcome. These two requirements are typically met in chance games.

In addition to the desire to win, there is an action, like as throwing a die or pulling a lever on a slot machine, which is immediately followed by a result. Even though the outcome is chosen randomly, the control heuristic gives the player a sense of control over the outcome.

Self-regulation theory provides another rationale. People who are motivated by internal goals that involve exerting control over their surroundings may want to reestablish control in the face of chaos, uncertainty, or stress. One approach to cope with a lack of real control is to erroneously believe that one has control over the circumstance.

Social and Cultural Aspects

Social structures often dictate the perceived level of control individuals feel they have. Individuals in positions of power frequently overestimate their control over events, a bias that’s reinforced by their social environment. Group settings can particularly amplify this illusion, as the need for control is socially validated and expectations to exert influence are high.

In some research, it was noted that a person’s social class could influence their tendency to attribute events to situational rather than dispositional factors. Moreover, those higher in the social hierarchy might attribute success to personal ability, while failures are often seen as circumstantial.

Cultural Expectations

Different cultures have varying beliefs about control. In societies that value individualism, there is often a stronger illusion of control, as individuals are culturally expected to exert and display control. This is evidenced by research showing that cultural values can affect perceptions of control over the environment. People from individualistic cultures may derive more psychological benefit from the illusion of control, even when such control is unattainable or not real.

Moreover, cultural psychology proposes models wherein identity variables, like subjective socio-economic status, influence a person’s sense of control within a cultural context. Thus, perception of control is intertwined not only with social power dynamics but also with the broader cultural framework within which an individual operates.

Personal Impacts

Psychologists Shelley Taylor and Jonathon Brown asserted in 1988 that positive illusions, such as an illusion of control, are adaptive because they inspire people to persevere in undertakings that they might otherwise abandon. Albert Bandura’s 1989 remark that “optimistic self-appraisals of capability, that are not unduly disparate from what is possible, can be advantageous, whereas veridical judgements can be self-limiting” supports this position. His argument focuses primarily on the adaptive effects of positive attitudes toward control and performance in circumstances where control is possible as opposed to perceived control in circumstances where an individual’s actions do not determine outcomes.

Taylor and Brown contend that positive illusions are adaptive, citing evidence that they are more common in typically functioning persons than in depressed individuals. However, in 1998, Pacini, Muir, and Epstein demonstrated that this could be because depressed people overcompensate for a tendency toward maladaptive intuitive processing by exercising excessive rational control in trivial situations, and that the difference with non-depressed people disappears in more serious situations.

In the late 1970s, Abramson and Alloy found that depressed people had a more accurate perception than their non-depressed counterparts in a test measuring illusion of control. This conclusion remained true even when the depression was artificially altered.

However, when Msetfi et al. (2005, 2007) replicated the findings, they discovered that nondepressed persons overestimated their control only when the delay was long enough, hinting that this is because they consider more components of a scenario than their depressed counterparts.

Dykman et al. (1989) showed that depressed persons perceive they have little control in situations when they actually have, implying that their perspective is not more correct overall. Allan et al. (2007) hypothesized that depressives’ pessimistic bias resulted in depressive realism when asked about estimation of control, because depressed people are more likely to respond no even when they have control.

A number of studies have identified a link between a sense of control and health, particularly in older adults. A study conducted at a nursing home explored the link between elderly people’s improved health and a sense of control.

As the nursing home residents were encouraged to make more decisions for themselves, they felt more in control of their everyday lives. This higher sense of control improved their overall happiness and health as compared to those who did not make as many decisions for themselves. It was even believed that with such promising outcomes, cognitive decline could be delayed or reversed as people age.

Decision Making

In decision-making processes, individuals often believe they have more control over events than they actually do. This can lead individuals to overestimate their ability to influence outcomes, becoming a pivotal factor in their motivation and performance.

For instance, when people feel familiar with a particular task, they may assume a higher degree of control over its success, potentially impacting the strategies they choose and their confidence in decision-making.

Risk Taking

This cognitive bias is notably present in risk-taking behaviors such as gambling. Gamblers often believe their personal involvement or superstitions can influence what is essentially a game of chance.

Despite the odds, the belief that one can control random events can lead to an increase in gambling behavior, sometimes to the detriment of their financial and psychological well-being. Gambling addiction can be exacerbated by the illusion of control. Gamblers may believe they are just on the cusp of mastering the trick to consistently win or predict gambling outcomes, pushing them to gamble more frequently.

The Gambler’s Fallacy is a common misconception among gamblers who believe that past random events can influence future outcomes. For example, after witnessing a series of reds on the roulette wheel, a gambler may irrationally expect that a black is due to occur, thinking that the odds of it landing on black increase, which is not mathematically true.

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