Control – Is it just an illusion?

The term “control” is one we often come across as psychologists. Appealing as it may seem, control is a sticky concept with more booby traps and potholes than we realise.

The term “illusion of control” refers to a tendency to believe that we have greater control over events and situations than we actually do. For example, you wear your lucky jersey to a footy game to boost your team’s chance of winning, you repeatedly press the button at the intersection to make the green man appear sooner, or a gambler believes that they have a strategy to predict the next numbers in a purely chance-determined game. The illusion having control makes us think that our actions can influence these random or uncontrollable events to produce our desired outcome.

Research shows that this bias is very common as we are all susceptible to the illusion of control. Because a sense of control is comforting and desirable, the bias has stuck around for so long! It feels good when we believe that we have the power to influence things around us, whereas feeling out of control and helpless can be deeply unsettling. In a study conducted in early 1970s, Glass and colleagues asked participants to complete a simple task while a loud disruptive buzzing sound played in the background at random intervals. One group of participants, the “Perceived Control” group was told they could press a button to let researchers know they wanted the noise to stop, but that it was highly preferred they don’t do so. In the “No Perceived Control”, no such instructions were provided. While both groups completed the tasks, their distress level was also measured. Interestingly, the study showed that while nearly all participants got to the end of the activity without pushing the button, the No Perceived Control group was significantly more distressed and made more errors. This result demonstrated that just the belief that we could stop an unpleasant situation makes it easier for us to tolerate it!

So, on the one hand, the illusion of control is good for us – it satisfies our need for control and protects us from feeling helpless. However, it also comes with a dark side. Overestimating our control over external events can also contribute to our mental distress.

Believing we have control over uncontrollable outcomes makes us more likely to invest time and energy into actions that are ineffective, unhelpful, or even harmful. Our resources are wasted engaging in behaviours that don’t influence the outcome at all, taking away from other things that do actually benefit our lives. This could lead to worrying or avoidance. For example, individuals with social anxiety may be concerned about others’ perception of them. They may be preoccupied with how they appear, talk, and behave, ensuring they do all the “right” things in hopes that it will influence how well they are liked. This overestimation of control over others’ perspectives can instead lead to increased anxiety, and difficulty building genuine and fulfilling connections. In the end, the need for being in control ends up controlling us!

When outcomes don’t go our way, assuming we had control over it can lead to self-blame, regret, frustration, and rumination. Who among us hasn’t become wistful and thought about all the ways they could have changed a situation? My friend, for example, got tested for COVID-19 and it took 6 days for her result to come in. During those 6 days of isolation, she wondered whether she should have gone to a different testing site, and when she heard of others getting their results quicker she blamed herself for making a bad choice. Despite the knowledge that she had no influence over when the result would arrive regardless of where she got tested, the illusion of control sunk its claws deep and made those 6 days painful ones. Does that sound familiar? We berate and blame ourselves, think about all we should and shouldn’t have done, our minds running through the same thoughts repeatedly. But as we know, the reality was probably that our decisions have limited bearing on the outcome, and even if we had acted differently things might not have been better. While regret is natural and learning from past mistakes is integral to growth, dwelling on a past event that can’t be changed is an illusion of control.

So now that we know about the illusion of control, what can we do about it?

One of the cornerstones of mental health is flexibility – in the way we think, behave, and relate to our feelings. Focussing on the need for control often impedes flexibility and limits our capacity for enjoying a fulfilling and engaging life. Ironically, by letting go of the rigid sense of control, we stand to gain more “control” from a flexible position. This involves acknowledging that degree of control we have in different areas of life is limited, and becoming comfortable with this idea rather than investing efforts into keeping everything into a narrowly defined comfort zone. Once we recognise what is within our realm of influence and what is outside it, we can begin to redirect our energy in ways that are actually productive. Knowing our realm of influence means that we can step back from being hyper-focused on the outcome, and instead focus on the process and doing things that promote a meaningful life. Being flexible also develops our ability to let go of the situations that are outside our control, protecting us from all the self-blame and rumination.

I wonder if you have recognised instances where you have fallen victim to the illusion of control? Just recognising and labelling it is a great first step towards letting go of our futile efforts to maintain an exaggerated sense of control.

By Keera Anand, Provisional Psychologist