A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
December 18th, 2013 by William

The Illusion of Control

In the last couple of posts I’ve looked at the concepts of The Illusion of Skill and The Talent Gap. These are two areas where the performance review process falls short of being effective. Since most performance review processes focus on employee skills, the Illusion of Skill explained why people won’t necessarily believe what they hear in the review. The Talent Gap detailed what the true focus of the performance review process should be. This week’s post will focus on another of the common psychological constraints that we all function under: the illusion that we are in control.

In his book The Art of Thinking Clearly, ©2013, Rolf Dobelli provides an insight into the Illusion of Control that we all suffer. He tells us: “The illusion of control is the tendency to believe that we can influence something over which we have absolutely no control. In 1965, researchers H.H. Jenkins and W. C. Ward conducted a now famous experiment in which they set out to investigate a person’s acoustic sensitivity to pain. They placed the subjects in two separate rooms, one with blank walls and the other with a large red “Panic” button. The button was purely for show–not connected to anything. Results showed that the subjects in the room with the panic button where able to withstand significantly more noise than those in the other room. Why? The red panic button gave them the belief that they were in control of the situation.” Despite Jenkins and Ward not coining a name for this phenomenon, they in fact we’re the first to discover what’s now being called the “Illusion of Control.”

Do you believe you control more than you really do? Do you think you’re commanding your way through life? Do you believe that you can somehow control the people around you?Are you one of the subjects in the room with the big red button?

Dobelli also details another human condition that contributes to our illusion that we are in control. It’s called “The Availability Bias.” This is our tendency to let our past experiences easily affect our decision-making or reasoning ability. That is, if a task, or problem, reminds you of a time when you used a particular skill (or talent) to influence what happened, you are likely to believe you have more control over the outcome of the task than you do. When making decisions the availability bias occurs when a story you can readily recall plays too big a role in how you reach your conclusion. This “bias” is alive and well in all of us and thus in workplaces everywhere. This bias partially explains why we seem to never learn from the past−we’re quick to rely on it and thus repeat it.

By the same token, “The Illusion of Control” explains our tendency to overestimate our true ability to control events−to believe that we can control outcomes that we demonstrably have no influence over. The effect was named by psychologist Ellen Langer, a researcher from UCLA in 1975, and has been replicated in many different contexts and experiments−predated by the above Jenkins and Ward experiment.

Langer showed that people often behave as if chance events are personally controllable. In a series of experiments, Langer demonstrated first the prevalence of the Illusion of Control and second, that people were more likely to behave as if they could exercise control in a chance situation where (what she called) ‘skill cues’ were present. Skill cues are much the same as the availability bias−if we’re convinced we have skill in something then we think we can control it, despite it maybe being nothing more than a game of chance. Recall the example I gave in my previous post in which my experience in stock trading leads me to believe I have that skill and thus I have control over my future stock trades.

However, the only situation in which we can be sure about how much control we have is when we demonstrably have no control at all, and in those situations people often still believe they have control. On the flip side, keep in mind that it’s been proven, across many studies, that even when people have a great deal of control, they underestimate it.

A few more examples might help to explain this further. Do you play the lottery? Many people believe they have more control by picking their own numbers vs. a quick pick. Also, people believe they are less likely to get into a car accident if they are driving. This explains why those not driving will stomp on the imaginary brake pedal if they see a potential accident about to happen. In the game of craps, gamblers tend to throw the dice harder when they need higher numbers, and lighter if they need low numbers.

Current TV beer ads show sports fans who believe they can influence the game from their living room by obsessing about some routine they do or wardrobe they wear. The tag line is: “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.”

All these demonstrate our belief that we can somehow control the outcomes of otherwise random events.

What’s really interesting is that researchers have also learned that although most individuals operate under an illusion of control at least some of the time, cynical individuals are much less likely to harbor such illusions. When it comes to accurately assessing control, people who are cynical have a much better grip on reality.

Recall my post from a couple weeks ago called “The Devil’s Advocate.” People who take the role of a devil’s advocate are typically those who have a somewhat cynical view of what they see around them. When we need to have control, we forgo and ignore any critical assessment we can make of a situation and thus cut ourselves off to looking at the downside to our decisions.

Ironically, there can be more “control” in a cynical (Devil’s Advocate) position than in one marked by efforts to keep everything within an illusionary zone of control. While much less research has been done on people’s illusion of control in situations where actual control is high, these situations can be much more frequent for us if we just open up ourselves to being more critical of what we see around us.

More often than not, you can’t influence how things will go and you certainly can’t always control how things will turn out. The bottom line: you may be in charge, but you’re not necessarily in control.


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