Cognitive Bias of the week #2: The Illusion of Control


The Illusion of Control

If I told you that the “close door” buttons in an elevator did nothing, would you believe me? In some elevators it is true. These buttons are there purely to give the passenger a sense of control. One simple form of this fallacy is found in casinos: when rolling dice in craps, it has been shown that people tend to throw harder for high numbers and softer for low numbers.


A question of interest is why this illusion occurs. According traditional accounts, the illusion of control is due to a need to protect self-esteem from the negative consequences of the loss of control. It is a defense mechanism that makes us all feel in control and maintain our self-esteem when we face events that we cannot control. More recent accounts, however, have suggested that the illusion of control is the result of the way our cognitive system works when associating causes and effects. In this framework, the illusion is a normal cognitive effect, not a motivational defense mechanism. Because our cognitive system needs to constantly associate possible causes to possible effects, and because there are conditions in which desired events occur with high probability, these events often become associated to our behavior as its most probable cause. This is particularly likely to occur when we are acting with high frequency in order to obtain those events. In these cases the number of coincidences between our behavior and the desired events is high, and the connection between them results strengthened even when their co-occurrences are due to mere chance. Helena Matute