A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

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illusion of control

One thing is certain: most of our thoughts and actions occur under conditions of uncertainty and the more uncertainty in our lives, the more anxiety we have. Anxiety is a state that most of us try to minimize. We avoid people or situations we know from experience cause us anxiety, unless we expect some big payoff for the added stress. We'll get on an airplane even though we don't want to because the reward of two weeks in Italy is deemed worth the psychic cost. But when we're on that airplane it will not help to remind ourselves that we are in a metal tube 30,000 feet above the ground and that we have no knowledge of the pilot or any of the people who pieced together the parts of the airplane or who fueled it, provided maintenance, and reviewed it for security. You also don't want to dwell on the fact that you will soon have to make your way through an airport terminal where your language is not the language of the people or the signs you might look to for help. And before you embark on that trip of a lifetime, you do not want to think about the time you will spend being treated like a suspected terrorist as you pass through various levels of "airport security."

It may seem that airlines are more concerned about adding fees for various services than they are about reducing passenger anxiety, but the industry really is aware of our travel anxiety and actively seeks ways to reduce our stress. Read this flyer's account of his experience on Singapore Airlines:

I was flying in economy class, but I still felt pampered. The flight attendants give you a hot towel at the start of the flight to refresh yourself. A nice thing given the long flight ahead and the ordeal to get to the airport and on the plane. It was also nice that they give out these Givenchy for Singapore Air toiletry bags with toothpaste, a toothbrush and a pair of socks.

The entertainment system is top notch. There are tons of movies to watch. American, European, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indian and Arabic movies are all represented. The music CD selection is also internationally diverse. There are also TV shows, radio shows, short stories and games to keep you entertained. The only thing missing here is wi-fi, which I believe they are working on providing.*

What Singapore provides is more than in-flight entertainment. It provides something to take your mind off of other things that might stress you out. The passenger controls what movies to watch, when to watch them, when to pause them, etc. This is real control...over the entertainment device. It gives you no control over the airplane, but it reduces anxiety by giving you control of something.

We not only feel better when we are in control of something. We feel better when we know somebody else is in control. (Think of how your anxiety level would rise if somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean you found out that the plane had no pilot.) We also feel better when we think we are in control of things even when we aren't.

One arena where the illusion of control dominates is sports. Athletes are notoriously superstitious and sports commentators are known not only for their clichés and repetition, but for their frequent invocation of the power of belief. It gets a little tiresome to hear another commentator say that Tiger Woods "willed the ball into the hole" or that somebody who hit a game-winning home run "wanted it." The guy who missed the putt for the championship or struck out to end the World Series wanted it just as much, but what commentator would say, "he just didn't want it enough."

Even President Bush fell into the control illusion andGeorge Bush cliché routine when he hosted the national champion Fresno State Bulldogs baseball team at the White House. He called them "a team that refused to quit" and thanked the players for their "willingness to never say die" (as if the University of Georgia players they beat for the championship were a bunch of quitters).

Steve Salerno's SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless has a chapter on the "empty prescriptives" of sports figures who make the banquet and workshop circuit where you'll be told repeatedly that to succeed in sports and in life you gotta want it and believe, baby. Even the correlative of the will to believe principle seems too obvious to pay big bucks for: if you believe you will fail, you probably will. It will be interesting to see if the global "recession" impacts the attendance at motivational programs.

The illusion of control can not only make us feel better, it can drive us to accomplish things we otherwise might not accomplish. For example, there is an abundance of evidence that economic forecasting is a matter of chance, not skill. This has not prevented many economic forecasters and their followers from continuing to believe in their "system." If these folks admitted that luck, not skill, accounts for whatever success they have, they'd quit. Of course, some people who mistake luck for skill should quit: gamblers, for instance. But if everybody who realized that chance, not skill, accounts for what they accomplish, would we really be better off? Is there really any harm in wearing your lucky sweater when you take a test, in shouting commands to your in-flight golf ball, or in willing a red traffic light to turn green? What harm can come from making a wish before you blow out the candles on a birthday cake or say a prayer before taking a test you didn't study for?

There seems to be little harm in thousands of fans wearing their hats inside out and backwards in the mistaken belief that such action can influence the outcome of a baseball game. What harm is there in believing that an omnipotent being can be influenced to determine the outcome of a high school football game by having the team hold hands and utter an incantation? What harm can come from millions of people believing they can make global warming a hoax just by believing it is?

Control, whether illusory or not, makes us feel powerful, which is a good feeling. And feeling that there is a right order in the universe, that some being is in control of everything that happens is comforting to many people. What harm is there in believing that your prayers saved the astronauts or your aunt Hildie, or that some invisible being is controlling everything in the universe? Is it really a bad thing to believe that there are no coincidences, that everything happens for a reason? What's wrong with believing it was your prayers that led some god to change the direction of a tornado so that it spared your house while obliterating your neighbor's house and family? What's the harm in obliterating truth and reality in favor of what you want to be true as in the work of Andrew Schafley at that bastion of ridiculousness called Conservapedia?

On the other hand, a great deal of harm can come from deluding yourself that you can control your health or your wealth, or somebody else's health or wealth, by your thoughts and prayers or other superstitious actions. It is impressive that most of us can lift our arms when we want to, but it is delusional to think you can make other people's arms lift by your thoughts. Your headache may have gone away a few hours after you did twenty jumping jacks, but you are deluding yourself if you believe the exercise caused the headache to go away. I suppose we could make it a rule that the illusion of control isn't a bad thing as long as it doesn't lead to delusional thinking that results in harm to oneself or others. If we did make that a rule, what would we then say about financial advisers who convince their clients that their system of economic forecasting is a good bet? Are these folks in the same category as people who pray instead of having their child's diabetes treated by a medical doctor?

Last updated 05-Nov-2015

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