The Illusion of Control

“Adulthood brings with it a pernicious illusion of control.” Juan Gabriel


TASK AT HAND: This week I’m thinking about control. The desire for control is commonplace and, overall, we hope to exert positive or beneficial control in the actions and events that take place in our lives. The hope is that we can “guide” strategies towards desired outcomes. Control becomes a surrogate for ends and outcomes.

You can see this is a reasonable and somewhat rationale thought process. However, let me introduce you to the cognitive bias of the illusion of control. This is a habit where we overestimate our ability to control events. The effect is named by psychologist Ellen Langer and has been demonstrated in numerous different experiments.

“The illusion of control is a type of cognitive bias where we overestimate our ability to control events.”

As we find ourselves in stressful and competitive situations, this type of bias increases significantly. Sports are common examples where a participant “believes” that he or she can make the basket or score the goal. In reality, once that ball leaves the shooter’s hands or launches from their foot, all control is foregone. There is no control that can be exerted beyond that action. Another example is financial markets where an investor is “sure” they can make a profit on a particular trade. For the latter, he or she has almost zero control over the outcome of that stock price or bond dividend.

So, what does this mean for our strategies and plans?

Do we just relinquish all control?

No, as with all types of biases, we need to learn to detect it and minimize it’s deleteriously effects. For the illusion of control, one can overcome this type of bias by focusing on processes rather than prediction of outcomes. I like reminding myself of the adage, “the ends do not justify the means”, to realize that I cannot control ultimate ends but I can influence the means and processes via a conscientious connection with acts. This liberates you from the stress of trying to control the outcome and allows you to deliver the best possible action or strategy. Try it!


MEDICINE & MACULA: Many thanks to Jim Beach (@entrepreneurjim) for having me on the School for Startups Radio! Jim’s philosophy on entrepreneurship is refreshing and you can hear me on his June 22 episode here.


GRATIS: “If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.” -Mario Andretti


My best to you,

David Almeida

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