Illusion Of Control

I was recently in an office building downtown. When I arrived at the elevators, there was another person waiting, and the call button for “up” was already lit. In a few moments, a third person approached the elevator and forcibly mashed the already lit “up” button. Moments later, a fourth person arrived, and the already obviously pressed button was pressed yet again.

Why do people push an already pushed button? Because it makes them feel like they are in control of the situation. When I push that button, I am “making” that elevator come to me. First named by Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, the Illusion of Control is the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control events. Ellen Langer’s research demonstrated that people were more likely to behave as if they could exercise control in a chance situation where “skill cues” were present. In other words, if there is a call button and you push it, you believe you are controlling the arrival of the elevator.  

Interestingly, this can have positive social effects. In New York City, less than 100 of the 10,000 crosswalk buttons actually control the timing of the crossing light. Why leave them there if they don’t work? Because when people approach an intersection and push the button to cross, they are more likely to wait patiently till the crossing light indicates it is safe to cross. The illusion that they have “done” something to make it possible to cross soon has the effect of calming them while they wait for an event that is actually unconnected to anything they have done. 

There is, however, a dark side to this psychological bias. People tend to believe they are “in control” of much they are not, and they also tend to believe they are capable of handling that control. This bias is strengthened when things are going well, and we are “winning.” However, like the person at the crosswalk, just because the crossing light comes on after we push the button does not mean we “caused” the light to change. In fact, there are many complex factors involved in when and why that light changes that we will never see.

The way the world around us works is also complex and, in many (or most) cases, hidden from our view. One of the character qualities we emphasize is humility, which is simply acknowledging that other people have a significant, even if unseen, impact on my success. Humility is like an antidote to illusion of control bias. Additionally, since much of what happens to us is influenced by other people, humility increases the likelihood that people will use their influence for our benefit.  

Interestingly, we are often the humblest when we are in crisis. Times of crisis are the best opportunities we have to break through the veil of our bias and understand how out of control we really are. Crisis is also where we are most likely to learn the value of community. We tend to not realize how much we need each other, until we do. While crisis is difficult and can be costly in many ways, it is also valuable as a grounding event.

Crisis can be healthy for us individually, as well as for the community, if we acknowledge it and participate in it. Someone is in crisis every day, but we often only think about it when we are the one in trouble. As a caring community, we should engage with people when they are in crisis, both to help them and to help ourselves.

There is very little about the world around us that we can control. Thinking that we are causing our successes (or sometimes our failures) is arrogant at best and can be very dangerous. The illusion of control can cause us to unnecessarily put ourselves and others at risk. Which begs the question, “What do we have control over, and what should we do with everything else?”

What each of us has complete control over is our own behavior and our reactions to the circumstances we encounter. We can choose to respond to hate with love, to injury with pardon, to doubt with faith, to despair with hope, to darkness with light, and to sadness with joy. We can choose to engage with those around us in ways that acknowledge and honor where they are and participate in life with them. We can seek to be grateful each day for the millions of miracles that occur, and we can purpose to make amends for the wrongs we commit.

As leaders, we find it difficult to remain humble and aware of the lack of control we have when our job is literally to “be in control.” Great leaders realize that they cannot force the universe to comply, but rather must find the path through the variability. Great leaders realize that remaining humble opens the door for the people around them to add their influence and increase the momentum towards a common goal. Great leaders, like you, realize that while control is an illusion, community is real. Within community we find support, stability and success. That is not an illusion, it is The Kimray Way.