Why trust is the best illusion of control

November 2, 2021

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The illusion of control is an irrational thought because we never really have control. As Marsha Linehan once said:"Radical acceptance rests on letting go of the illusion of control and a willingness to notice and accept things as they are right now, without judging."

Let me make my case for trust:

Illusion of control makes us do irrational things

Illusion of control means our belief that we can influence or even control outcomes we have no control over. That we can change our fate.

As Ellen Langer shared in her 1975 publication, “illusion of control, ", we often behave as if we could influence and control random events. Her experiments showed we are even more likely to assume we could exercise control over a situation when skill cues are present (properties of skill, for instance, competition, involvement in decisions, familiarity with the stimulus.)

A simple example of this fallacy:

People throw harder when rolling the dice in a casino if they want to roll high numbers and softer for low numbers.

If they roll the desired number, they feel validated and wrongly conclude there’s a correlation between how hard you throw the dice and what you roll. If it’s not the desired number, they assume they didn’t throw hard enough.

I have more examples for you:

Did you hear the fable of piggie and sheepie? Ok… I made it up.

A few more experience-near examples:

  • In the first 12 months after 9/11, Americans didn’t want to travel by plane. There were about 1600 additional deaths by car accidents.
  • Most people press more than once when they’re waiting at a traffic light and it doesn’t turn green right away. Fun fact: In New York, the button has no effect. When the city automated their traffic lights, they saved the costs for removing the buttons.
  • A friend with a broken leg was in bed and asked me to get him a lottery ticket. I went to the store, checked a few boxes, signed his name, and paid. He reacted angrily as I handed him a copy of the ticket. “What was the point of filling it out? That was something I wanted to do. I’ll win nothing with your numbers!”“Do you really believe that picking the numbers influences the draw?” I asked. He gave me a blank stare.

    Many people believe their lucky numbers will win. Even though it’s clear that chance has no memory.

A very common illusion of control is to spot patterns where there are none. For instance, gamblers believe in lucky and unlucky streaks.

Or they would believe they have a higher chance of winning with “their own” numbers than randomly selected numbers.

That is also true for Karma. While it’s true that our thinking influences which things of the plethora of things around us we notice, and how happy and content we live, it is not true that Karma acts as a judge.

We're living in a world where the majority of people are being treated poorly. Unfair wages, inequality, toxic working conditions, and so on. Wouldn't it be bad for your karma to be responsible for any of that?

When the illusion of control is helpful

There’s an evolutionary reason for the illusion of control:

If we underestimate our influence and assume there’s “nothing we can do,” the logical consequence is inactivity. If we can’t control, why bother?

Whenever our assessment of the level of control we have over a situation is correct, we use our energy optimally.

  • If we underestimate our influence:
    We miss out on an opportunity if we were wrong.
    We preserve our energy and don’t waste it if we're right.
  • If we assume we have a lot of influence:
    We might take advantage of an opportunity to shape our environment.
    If we’re wrong, we wasted energy.

Wasting energy is easier to stomach than missing out on an opportunity.

One of my all-time favorite quotes is:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Niebuhr

When in doubt, it’s better to waste energy than an opportunity to create, shape, influence.

I’m not a gambler. I don’t enjoy playing with money. Around 25 years ago, I briefly dabbled in stocks. Well, I purchased stocks of two companies, actually.

The first was a company that produced Tamagotchis. When the share price went through the roof, I felt so in control and brilliant and cool. After all, everyone told me it’s idiotic to buy shares of a Tamagotchi company.

My second choice was shares from a Turkish bank, Demir bank. One day I woke up, and the shares were pufffffff gone.

I realized I wasn't cool at all, just mislead by a false belief. I assumed I had control over something that (without insider information or serious industry/trading knowledge) might not be controllable at all.

À propos "knowledge”:

People often trust professional portfolio managers. However, they are also victims of the illusion of control who think they can control chance, but rarely beat the index.

Back in the late 90ties, the Director of Risk Management of the German bank “Commerzbank” offered me a job. He told me if I joined, I would enjoy an illustrious career until I’m ready to retire. Today, the bank is systemically irrelevant.

Politicians and leaders have to pretend they’re in control and create a false sense of security.

We’re often looking for patterns (and falsely assume we recognize pattern) where there is none.

“Lightening doesn’t hit twice at the same spot,” is an attitude that helps people who suffered a traumatic experience, for instance, overcoming a life-threatening disease or event. All the power to them if it helps them getting back to normality after a traumatic experience.

However, it's not factually true. Lightening can and might hit twice in the same place.

We try to make sense of the world, and, therefore; we have difficulties assessing events independently. For instance, you can easily teach your dog there’s a correlation between “playing” and snacks when there’s really none.

Total control is impossible

You can decide when you get up, what you have for breakfast, and how often you work out. That’s basically it.

DO NOT THINK ABOUT A CUTE SMILING ELEFANT!!!

See? Where was your control right now?

If you’re commuting, you don't know if you’ll get stuck in heavy traffic or they block the highway after an accident. Today might be the day where you have a flat tire.

Some people feel comforted and relived when a fortune teller tells them everything will work out just fine.

My mom prays for me whenever I travel by plane.

Comfort in uncertain times

When we’re worried, we try to gain back our feeling of security and comfort by trying to control the situation. That’s the origin of many superstitions and also compulsive acts.

My mom checks if she turned off the oven before she leaves the house. Latest when we’re sitting down to eat/drink something (see “The default mode network of the brain”,) she’d ask me if she turned the oven off. A few minutes later if I'm sure.

In an increasingly unpredictable and complicated world, we prefer one-dimensional explanatory models. They make us feel less helpless. Even if we know the explanation is wrong.

How to let go of control illusion

Aim to control only what you can influence! That excludes 90% of your life, such as:

  • How your relationship will end
  • What becomes of your children
  • The day you die
  • If you’ll be replaced by AI or a robot
  • and many other things

What you can control

The roughly 10% of things you are control include:

  • Be grateful for what you have and don’t look at the grass on the “other side.” Focussing on advancing your projects and ideas by creating value always works better than wasting your energy on fighting perceived “enemies.”
  • Do something that makes you happy - every single day!
  • Accept yourself and everyone else and make peace with things happening in the world that you cannot change.
  • Use your energy for things you can influence and love your fate.
  • Bounce back from failure quickly.

Amor Fati means “love of fate.” I wrote an article on my leadership blog that you can find HERE.

We can’t change our fate. But we can change our attitudes, how we perceive things, and where we spend our energy.

Life isn’t fair. If we accept this truth and adjust our expectations and mindset, we’ll conclude that Amor Fati is the way.

Letting go of things we cannot control brings peace and unleashes incredible power.

Maybe you had/have a tough life. Love it anyway.

An article that you also might find interesting in that context is a piece on the Default Mode Network of the brain. It explains how and why we often add to our pain and suffering. Up to 80% of our suffering is self-made. Read HERE.

Trust is the best “illusion of control”

We cannot control life, but it still works for millions and millions of years.

Here’s a powerful simple trick:

Let go of the belief that you have to carry life. Let life carry you.

Trust that the Universe will take care of you.

You cannot change your fate, but you can love it.

Amor fati!


Sources

Langer, E. J. (1975). The illusion of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(2), 311–328. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.32.2.311