Illusion of Control Definition
The illusion of control (also known as illusory control) refers to the tendency for people to exaggerate their ability to produce a desired outcome. Even when it comes to controlling random events, people believe they have control.
Factors That Influence Illusory Control
Traditionally, people assumed accurate self-knowledge was crucial for survival and health. In this formulation, people possessed the ability to correctly judge control over their environments; accurate knowledge of when one’s actions produced particular outcomes—and when they did not—was thought to be critical for functioning effectively in the world. In a broad sense, this is true. For example, mentally healthy people know they cannot control whether the sun rises and sets each day. At the same time, though, a feeling of being in control is vital for self-esteem and mental health. The problem is people generally overestimate the amount of control they have over events.
People do not always overestimate their control, however; contextual factors and characteristics of the people involved are both very important. At least six factors contribute to an illusion of control. First, people must themselves produce the action; others cannot act for them. Second, the situation is familiar, rather than unfamiliar. Third, people know in advance their desired outcome. Fourth, people believe they exert more control in successful situations than in failure situations: No one wants to assume unnecessary responsibility when things go wrong. Fifth, people in depressed moods tend to believe they have less control over events than people in nondepressed moods. (Interestingly, depressed individuals are usually less susceptible to the illusion of control than nondepressed individuals; their apparent underestimation of control actually turns out to be somewhat more realistic.) Sixth, a personality variable that researchers call the need for control seems to influence illusions of control, though this topic requires further study.
Evidence for Illusion of Control
A large body of evidence supports the illusion of control. Gambling, for example, would likely lose much of its appeal without people’s slightly altered perceptions of control. When gambling, people believe they can control chance events. For example, studies have demonstrated people think they have more control over the outcome of a dice game if they throw the dice themselves than if someone else throws the dice for them, and they are less apt to sell a lottery ticket they chose than a ticket chosen by someone else (presumably because people errantly infer the odds of winning increase because they threw the dice or bought the ticket). In another study, participants cut cards against a competitor (the person drawing the highest card was the winner). In one condition in the experiment, the competitor dressed poorly and appeared nervous; in the other condition, the competitor dressed elegantly and looked poised. Even though the appearance of the competitor has no objective influence on the outcome of the game, participants wagered more money when playing against the nervous competitor than when playing against the composed competitor.
Research also seems to confirm that depressed individuals are less susceptible to illusions of control than nondepressed individuals. In an early experiment on this topic, researchers told participants that pressing a button might (or might not) turn on a green light (in reality, whether the light turned on was prearranged; button pressing actually had no effect). In one condition, participants gained $0.25 for every time the light appeared. In another condition, they lost $0.25 each time they “failed” to make the light appear. Participants then rated the extent to which their actions (pressing the button) caused the result (the light turning on). Results of the study demonstrated nondepressed individuals thought they were more responsible for the light turning on than depressed individuals, especially when their actions brought about desired outcomes (i.e., gaining $0.25 as opposed to losing $0.25).
Why People Overestimate Their Personal Control
Less research has examined the origins of the illusion of control, but some explanations have been offered. Originally, researchers thought people simply confused chance and skill, because situations conducive to the illusion of control are often similar to situations in which people demonstrate skill (i.e., a situation in which people are familiar with the outcomes, personally active, and successful). More recently, researchers have proposed the illusion of control might instead be a heuristic (a rule of thumb people use to make quick judgments without much thinking). The illusion of control, then, might result from the continued pairing of one’s own behavior in a situation with a desired outcome. Like most heuristics, most of the time this pairing is correct, but sometimes it is incorrect, as in situations in which the outcome occurs randomly.
Implications: Is Illusory Control Healthy?
Feeling out of control is definitely not healthy. People who feel out of control develop a state of learned helplessness (i.e., they quit trying and give up). But is feeling in control healthy, even if it is only an illusion? On the positive side, perceiving unwarranted control leads people to experience positive emotions and try novel, challenging tasks. On the negative side, perceiving unwarranted control leads people to take foolish, unnecessary risks, especially in a gambling context. Overall, illusory control is a trade-off. There probably exists an optimal level of illusory control, which depends on situational and personal factors.
- Alloy, L. B., & Abramson, L. Y. (1979). Judgments of contingency in depressed and nondepressed students: Sadder but wiser? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 108, 441-485.
- Langer, E. J. (1975). The illusion of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 311-328.
- Thompson, S. C. (1999). Illusions of control: How we overestimate our personal influence. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8, 187-190.