Monday, May 14, 2012

illusion of control

One thing is certain: most of our thoughts and actions occur under conditions of uncertainty and the more uncertainty in our lives, the more anxiety we have. Anxiety is a state that most of us try to minimize. We avoid people or situations we know from experience cause us anxiety, unless we expect some big payoff for the added stress. We'll get on an airplane even though we don't want to because the reward of two weeks in Italy is deemed worth the psychic cost. But when we're on that airplane it will not help to remind ourselves that we are in a metal tube 30,000 feet above the ground and that we have no knowledge of the pilot or any of the people who pieced together the parts of the airplane or who fueled it, provided maintenance, and reviewed it for security. You also don't want to dwell on the fact that you will soon have to make your way through an airport terminal where your language is not the language of the people or the signs you might look to for help. And before you embark on that trip of a lifetime, you do not want to think about the time you will spend being treated like a suspected terrorist as you pass through various levels of "airport security."

It may seem that airlines are more concerned about adding fees for various services than they are about reducing passenger anxiety, but the industry really is aware of our travel anxiety and actively seeks ways to reduce our stress. Read this flyer's account of his experience on Singapore Airlines:
I was flying in economy class, but I still felt pampered. The flight attendants give you a hot towel at the start of the flight to refresh yourself. A nice thing given the long flight ahead and the ordeal to get to the airport and on the plane. It was also nice that they give out these Givenchy for Singapore Air toiletry bags with toothpaste, a toothbrush and a pair of socks.

The entertainment system is top notch. There are tons of movies to watch. American, European, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indian and Arabic movies are all represented. The music CD selection is also internationally diverse. There are also TV shows, radio shows, short stories and games to keep you entertained. The only thing missing here is wi-fi, which I believe they are working on providing.*
What Singapore provides is more than in-flight entertainment. It provides something to take your mind off of other things that might stress you out. The passenger controls what movies to watch, when to watch them, when to pause them, etc. This is real control...over the entertainment device. It gives you no control over the airplane, but it reduces anxiety by giving you control of something.

We not only feel better when we are in control of something. We feel better when we know somebody else is in control. (Think of how your anxiety level would rise if somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean you found out that the plane had no pilot.) We also feel better when we think we are in control of things even when we aren't.

The illusion of control can not only make us feel better, it can drive us to accomplish things we otherwise might not accomplish. For example, there is an abundance of evidence that economic forecasting is a matter of chance, not skill. This has not prevented many economic forecasters and their followers from continuing to believe in their "system." If these folks admitted that luck, not skill, accounts for whatever success they have, they'd quit. Of course, some people who mistake luck for skill should quit: gamblers, for instance. But if everybody who realized that chance, not skill, accounts for what they accomplish, would we really be better off? Is there really any harm in wearing your lucky sweater when you take a test, in shouting commands to your in-flight golf ball, or in willing a red traffic light to turn green? What harm can come from making a wish before you blow out the candles on a birthday cake or say a prayer before taking a test you didn't study for?

There seems to be little harm in thousands of fans wearing their hats inside out and backwards in the mistaken belief that such action can influence the outcome of a baseball game. What harm is there in believing that an omnipotent being can be influenced to determine the outcome of a high school football game by having the team hold hands and utter an incantation? What harm can come from millions of people believing they can make global warming a hoax just by believing it is?

Control, whether illusory or not, makes us feel powerful, which is a good feeling. And feeling that there is a right order in the universe, that some being is in control of everything that happens is comforting to many people. What harm is there in believing that your prayers saved the astronauts or your aunt Hildie, or that some invisible being is controlling everything in the universe? Is it really a bad thing to believe that there are no coincidences, that everything happens for a reason? What's wrong with believing it was your prayers that led some god to change the direction of a tornado so that it spared your house while obliterating your neighbor's house and family? What's the harm in obliterating truth and reality in favor of what you want to be true as in the work of Andrew Schafley at that bastion of ridiculousness called Conservapedia?

On the other hand, a great deal of harm can come from deluding yourself that you can control your health or your wealth, or somebody else's health or wealth, by your thoughts and prayers or other superstitious actions. It is impressive that most of us can lift our arms when we want to, but it is delusional to think you can make other people's arms lift by your thoughts. Your headache may have gone away a few hours after you did twenty jumping jacks, but you are deluding yourself if you believe the exercise caused the headache to go away. I suppose we could make it a rule that the illusion of control isn't a bad thing as long as it doesn't lead to delusional thinking that results in harm to oneself or others. If we did make that a rule, what would we then say about financial advisers who convince their clients that their system of economic forecasting is a good bet? Are these folks in the same category as people who pray instead of having their child's diabetes treated by a medical doctor?


  1. Singapore Airlines is not a good example,it's been there custom for 30+ years, it's not something new and yes I would not fly any other, I fly Amsterdam/Sydney twice a year, love your writings, toi toi

  2. As a political junky I think politics is a great example of this. Politicians and the economists are constantly thinking this way: whether talking about unemployment, the economy, or even something like the weather. When is the last time have you heard anyone talk about natural variability? Chance or non-government influence factors? If the result they are explaining is positive, the party in question always takes credit as if it was planned whereas when the result was negative, it is usually blamed on other party interference or policies. This is especially ridiculous when talking in the negative, such as George Bush and Obama taking credit for there being no terrorist attacks. I am focusing on the negative but the illusion of control seems pretty important for democracy too... If voters fully realized how little control politicians actually have in many issues would we even get 50% turnout in presidential elections?

  3. YOu said " What harm can come from millions of people believing they can make global warming a hoax just by believing it is?"
    And what harm can come from millions of people believing they can make global warming true, just by believing it is? So your statement invalidated your position.

  4. Anonymous said: "And what harm can come from millions of people believing they can make global warming true, just by believing it is? So your statement invalidated your position."

    When 95+% of the world's working climate scientists, every national and UN scientific body, probably 90+% of political leaders outside the U.S., and U.S. military authorities agree that anthropogenic global warming is real, Anonymous is clearly expressing two uninformed opinions contrary to fact

  5. That number is actually around 97% for climate scientists (the source is here). Bear in mind they have some strictures that limit who was eligible for the 'climate scientists' position (such as needing to have published over 20 papers). Climate science is a pretty specific area of science, dominated by a few centers of research and study, any 'good' climate skeptic does not deny that Climatologists believe in Global warming.
    The UN's position is dictated by the IPCC, which pretty much just outlines the consensus in Climatology. And I think the political leaders in Australia and China would definately disagree with that 90% number. China probably has 1/3rd of all political leaders in the world and they sunk Copenhagen remember...
    But more importantly I am not exactly sure how all of this relates to the Illusion of Control, though I always enjoy talking about Global Warming.

    1. I have just wasted my time reading these opinions that are trying to sound intelligent. Good english. The rest, pretentous garbage.

  6. I suppose we could make it a rule that the illusion of control isn't a bad thing as long as it doesn't lead to delusional thinking that results in harm to oneself or others.

    I am very interested in whether this is possible in a global sense.

    Matthew Hutson seems to bite this bullet hard in his new book, literally encouraging magical thinking because it's allegedly good for us.

    I am extremely suspicious as to whether we can in practice distinguish those situations in which our self-deception harms ourselves or others from those in which self-deception is harmless. Even our notions of what counts as harm, our values, depend on self-deception and non-rational processes in our minds.

    Values and biases seem, in practice, very hard to keep separate, if they are separate things at all.

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