The illusion of control

kości do gry
kości do gry

Published: 16-10-2021

It is nice to feel in control of what is happening, but there are situations that, despite our best efforts, we cannot control. It would be rational in such situations to admit that well – I have no influence on this event, but research shows that we often succumb to the illusion of control.

We feel as if we are controlling something that is actually independent of our actions. This phenomenon is shown by, among others, the studies by Alloy and Abramson (1979). The participants in their experiment had a button in front of them that, according to their decision, they could press or not, and then the green light turned on or off. Thus, four events could occur: 1) the subject pressed the button and the light came on, 2) the subject did not press the button and the light came on, 3) the subject pressed the button and the light did not come on and 4) the subject did not press the button and the light did not light up. After each series, the subjects were asked to what extent, according to them, they had an influence on the lighting of the lamp, i.e. how much whether the lamp turned on or not depended on whether the subject pressed the button or not. Two such experiments were conducted. In one, the lighting of the lamp really depended on the subject’s behavior, and in the other, it was completely independent of pressing the button. In the first experiment, the respondents very accurately assessed their influence on the lighting of the lamp. If the lighting of the lamp was strongly related to pressing the button, the respondents assessed their influence as strong, if the correlation was weaker, the respondents perceived their influence as well. It was different, however, in the second experiment, in which there was in fact no relationship between the lighting of the lamp and the pressing of the button. Many people were under the illusion of control, that is, they thought they had influence over whether the lamp was lit or not, even though they had no influence whatsoever.

People also seem to believe that they have an influence on the outcome of the dice roll. One researcher noticed that when we want to throw a low number, we gently roll the dice, while when we want a high number to come out, we throw it harder … (Henslin, 1967 as cited in: Langer, 1975). Another interesting study also proves that we behave as if we have control over what turns out (Strickland, Lewicki, & Katz, 1966 as cited in: Langer, 1975). Participants in the study took part in a game in which they bet on how many pips will be rolled. Sometimes they were betting on the result before the throw, and sometimes after the throw but before showing how many came up. Contrary to logic, when they were betting on the outcome before throwing, they would bet higher amounts of money than when they were betting it after the throw. Although the chance of a hit was always 1/6, regardless of whether the die was already rolled or not, they acted as if the chance to hit was greater when betting before the throw than after it. As if they thought that they could somehow influence the result of the roll … They would probably bet even larger amounts before the roll if they were throwing the dice themselves and not by someone else, because when we throw ourselves, we feel more control over the result than when someone else throws (Golin, Terrel, & Johnson, 1977).

People who are depressed do not succumb to illusions of control (Alloy & Abramson, 1979; Golin et al., 1979). Combined with the information that they are also characterized by less unrealistic optimism and a lack of self-serving bias, this is very interesting. It seems that we are not mentally healthy despite the frequent lack of logic in our behavior and widespread irrationality, but thanks to this. We clearly need positive illusions about ourselves.

This is also shown in the research by Taylor (1983) on patients with breast cancer. Although doctors cannot tell what caused cancer in a particular person (they only know what factors statistically increase the probability of developing cancer), 95% of patients said they knew what caused their cancer. They listed factors such as general stress, marital problems, a specific carcinogen contained in birth control pills, fumes from a nearby factory, and an improper diet. Most indicated factors that no longer existed (e.g. stress) or those that they had influence on (e.g. diet). Their beliefs, while irrational, were often useful. Patients who believed in their influence on the disease felt better and had a higher degree of satisfaction with various aspects of their lives. By believing that the disease was caused, for example, by diet, the use of certain medications or smoking, they could believe that they could influence the treatment process by changing their diet, stopping the pill, or smoking. It is not known whether these activities actually influenced the disease and its treatment, but it is certain that they positively influenced the mental state of the patients.


  1. Alloy, L. B., Abramson, L. Y. (1979) Judgement of contingency in depressed and nondepressed students: Sadder but wiser? Journal of Experimental Psychology, 108(4), 441-485.
  2. Langer, E. J. (1975). The illusion of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(2), 311-328.
  3. Golin, S., Terrell, F., Johnson, B. (1977). Depression and the illusion of control. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 86(4), 440-442.
  4. Golin, S., Terrell, F., Weitz, J. i Drost, P. L. (1979). The illusion of control among depressed patients. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 88(4), 454-457.
  5. Taylor, S. E. (1983). Adjustement to threatening events: A theory of cognitive adaptations. American Psychologist, 1161-1173.

Author: Maja Kochanowska

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