Skip to main content

Illusions of control

Don Moore, professor, Haas School of Business | July 19, 2018

That “close door” button doesn’t actually do anything.

Most elevators have some form of a “close door” button. Impatient elevator riders the world over push that button when they want the elevator to get moving. Unbeknownst to them, their button-pushing efforts are useless. The vast majority of building managers and elevator programmers think they know when the doors should close, and have deactivated the button. Pushing the button has no effect, yet people continue to push it. This is just one example of the “illusion of control”: Acting as if we control something that we don’t.

Illusions of control represent one of several “positive illusions” documented in psychological research. Illusions of control might indeed be positive if they prompt people to take confident action and persist in the face of discouragement. But when the illusion of control leads us to persist where our efforts are useless, its results not positive. Overestimating how much we control can lead us to make tragic and costly errors, such as refusing medical treatment in the false belief that, for instance, cancer can be cured by good thoughts or laughter. When Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003, he was reluctant to hand over control of his treatment to his physicians. They were recommending surgery and chemotherapy. Jobs, an irrepressibly confident man, sought treatment with acupuncture, herbal remedies, and a special diet.(1) When he ultimately agreed to surgery, his cancer had grown so large that parts of his pancreas, gall bladder, stomach, bile duct, and small intestine had to be removed. He died in 2011.

Corporations seek to influence consumer perceptions of their products through advertising. However, there is precious little evidence that advertising actually works. Department store tycoon John Wannamaker gave voice to this skepticism when he complained, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The trouble is, I don’t know which half.” Instead, companies act as if they can control consumer choices through advertising without ever testing the theory. In order to test the effectiveness of advertising, companies would need to run randomized controlled trials, in which some consumers are selected at random to view ads and some see nothing. How often do companies conduct proper experimental tests? Just about never.

In fact, it is rare for any of us to put our beliefs about control to the test. When companies have actually tested whether their advertising works, they often find surprising results, such as eBay’s revelation that the return on its advertising investment might actually be negative.(2)

So is it wiser to assume we’re not in control of either our own health or of how customers view us?  That can lead to the opposite error—to be underconfident about what we can control. It is easy to identify tragic missed opportunities that can arise from this belief. People fail to take control of situations that they could control. Failing to appreciate the ways in which we control our own destinies can lead to resignation when, had we been more confident, we would have asserted control. This sense of powerlessness pervades attitudes about coping with addiction, implementing political change, and changing cultures of the teams or organizations in which we work.

To pick another common example, consider weight loss. Over two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, and most of them would like to lose weight.(3)  It is no surprise what leads people to lose weight: fewer donuts and more perspiration. Yet many people have resigned themselves to obesity.  In 2013 the American Medical Association decided to recognize obesity as a disease. There is reason for concern that this official designation leads obese people to feel a decreased sense of personal control. In one study, the researchers randomly assigned some participants to read about the AMA’s decision and some of its accompanying consequences, such as health insurance payments for obesity-related drugs, surgeries, counseling, and reduced stigma.(4) This message led to a decrease in obese people’s intention to diet.  If more Americans give up trying to exert self-control over their calorie consumption, it would be an unfortunate consequence of the AMA’s 2013 decision.

There are real benefits to having the courage to be honest with yourself about how good you are, how much you control, and where your efforts are most likely to pay off. This requires evidence-based confidence that is informed by facts and driven by honest self-reflection instead of wishful thinking. This would represent good calibration of your confidence, and it would lead to greater odds that your persistence will pay off. It is nicely summarized by the serenity prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

 

References

  1. W. Isaacson, Steve Jobs (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2011).
  2. T. Blake, C. Nosko, S. Tadelis, Consumer Heterogeneity and Paid Search Effectiveness: A Large Scale Field Experiment. Econometrica. 83, 155–174 (2015).
  3. C. D. Fryar, M. D. Carroll, C. L. Ogden, Prevalence of Overweight, Obesity, and Extreme Obesity Among Adults: United States, Trends 1960–1962 Through 2009–2010. CDC (2014), (available at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/obesity_adult_09_10/obesity_adult_09_10.htm).
  4. C. L. Hoyt, J. L. Burnette, L. Auster-Gussman, “Obesity Is a Disease”: Examining the Self-Regulatory Impact of This Public-Health Message. Psychol. Sci. (2014), doi:10.1177/0956797613516981.

Comments to “Illusions of control

  1. A most provocative post Prof. Moore. Considering current events in Washington and around the world today one has to wonder if we are losing control of our minds, threatening our Democracy, our civilization and our future. Robert Reich’s posts on his blog, and Legal Planet blog are as good as any documentation of our loss of control.

    In fact, We The People appear to be failing to control an acceptable quality of life that we owe to our newest and all future generations, failing to protect and perpetuate the legacy created for us by the sacrifices made by the Greatest Generation.

    Shall we ever learn? Once again, we fail to heed and act upon the lessons of history, as documented by many historians such as Will and Ariel Durant who warned us “When the group or a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitation of a corporate life, but through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change.” Current events prove daily that we are not only declining and falling, but we are, literally, crashing and burning due to global warming, Us/Them dichotomies, violence, inequalities, the power of money and hate.

    One question we had better find an answer to with the greatest sense of urgency was asked in the 2006 “Global Warning” issue of California Magazine:
    “Can We Adapt in Time?
    https://alumni.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/september-october-2006-global-warning/can-we-adapt-time

    It is now 2018 and we still have no answer. Needless to say, if we cannot control and protect our environment then we shall lose control of everything, and that is a totally unacceptable (final) legacy.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Avi! You are, of course, completely right that advertisements often affect brand image in ways that have their effects years down the road. But that only underscores the difficulty of assessing advertising’s effectiveness. How can I measure whether today’s advertisements affect sales in 10 years when I can’t even tell whether they affect sales today? The belief in advertising’s effectiveness persists independent of such evidence.

  3. I agree with the morals of the tales that Prof. Moore tells and believe in the efficacy of scientific means, so it’s unfortunate that he often uses a cartoonish oversimplification of advertising as a part of making his case.

    There is a vast academic literature pitting the strong and weak theories of mass communications against one another, and to try and fit that corpus into the tiny graduated beaker of a one-variable repeatable lab experiment does not do justice to either Media Studies as a discipline nor scientific positivism as a useful methodology. Only those on either end of an ad-buy transaction for google results sidebar mentions is gullible enough to believe that x ads will yield y additional purchases. The functions and purposes of advertising are multivalent, and their importance and effectiveness are circumstantially evident, particularly for non-essential goods and services. BMW and Audi are under no illusion that the ads they run during PGA golf broadcasts have a direct causal effect on current sales. Coca Cola isn’t selling sugar water.

    Regarding the heuristic value of underestimating control, let’s recall that the Protestant revolution is literally underwritten by an insistence on the futility of human effort in achieving ultimate aims — that is, salvation cannot come through good works. The Calvinist acronym TULIP sears into the hearts and minds of centuries of WASP and WASP-influenced people (tempting to say ‘victims’) that their own actions do not matter in the big picture. Profoundly conservative estimate of control, yes? What ends does that perspective serve, and how are we to consider (charitably or harshly) a culture that spreads underconfidence as gospel?

    Mightn’t there be a connection between the popularity of self-help New-Agey appeals to personal magic and a deeply embedded cultural contention that you, depraved child of original sin, are incapable of doing on your own precisely what society, tradition, and God himself have convinced you that you most need?
    And there we come back around to what advertising is really about: you’ve fallen and you can’t get up, but there is a way to buy your way out of that situation! Credit cards accepted; restrictions may apply.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *