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Bridgepoint   |   The Point   |   May 2019   |   Issue 35



From time immemorial, people have sought to gain a measure of control over their lives – and they are increasingly keen to do so in today’s fast-paced world. Smart companies can harness this knowledge to attract customers and enhance employee satisfaction. 

It happens when you push the button at a pedestrian crossing multiple times, hoping the lights will change faster. Or when you repeatedly jab the “close door” button in a lift to avoid an awkward interaction with a colleague. The light changes. The door finally closes. And for a moment you feel a flicker of relief because, in some small way, you feel as if you are in control.


More often than not, this feeling is misplaced. Most traffic lights are timed to change whether you push the button or not. Most lift doors close at predetermined times and are totally disconnected from any amount of frantic button-pushing. Even small acts of supposed influence, such as changing the office thermostat, can provide a false sense of agency. In an article in The Wall Street Journal, for example, contractors admitted to installing fake thermostats – at the request of budget-conscious executives – to keep temperatures constant and bills low while giving employees the false sense that they had some control over the office environment.

Ingrained bias

Our day-to-day lives are filled with these types of placebo buttons. Like placebo drugs, they contain no active ingredients, but are nevertheless potent psychological tools that play to our deepest human need to feel as if we can exercise power over our lives.

In her groundbreaking research on the topic, Harvard University researcher Dr Ellen Langer named this tendency the “illusion of control bias” – defined as “an expectancy of a personal success probability inappropriately higher than the objective would warrant it”.


According to Langer, the tendency to believe we can control things that are essentially predetermined – or even totally random – is so powerful that it drives humans to everything from placebo button-pushing and persistent beliefs in superstition to compulsive gambling and aggressive investing.


Taking action

In one of her studies, subjects who bought lottery tickets were split into two groups. One group was assigned tickets with numbers chosen for them at random. A second group was given the option to select their own numbers. While the lottery itself was ultimately a totally random game of chance, Langer found something interesting: when the two groups were asked to resell their tickets, subjects who had selected their own numbers placed a higher value on them. They inherently saw more value in the fact that they had chosen their numbers, despite the reality that their choices would have no effect on the final outcome.


We have more than 1,500 trials going on every day and our solutions can improve yields by up to 25 per cent, compared with classic applications

Langer believes this deeply ingrained bias probably developed as a way of incentivising humans to choose action over passivity, which would have been an evolutionary advantage. In other words, the positive feelings associated with the illusion of control are hard-wired in our brains.

Numbers game

There is plenty of evidence to support her theory. In a research study, for example, Mauricio Delgado, professor and chair of the psychology faculty at Rutgers University in New Jersey, asked volunteers to lie in an MRI machine and play a guessing game. At each round of the game, a number between one and nine would be presented to the subject. Before it was revealed, the subject would have to guess whether the number would be higher or lower than five.


The participants were told that the game required no skill. It was totally random, there were no tangible rewards and, although Delgado did not mention this, it was designed to be as boring as possible. He was interested to see how subjects’ brains would respond to a completely tedious exercise that was explicitly beyond their control and where the only satisfaction came from being right, if and when they were.


Feeling good

Despite his disclaimers, he noticed that as participants played the game, a portion of their brain – the corpus striatum – lit up every time they guessed. This area of the brain is associated with expectation, excitement and rewards, and is usually active in people who are highly motivated towards pursuing a goal. Even though participants were exercising no real control, their brains were lighting up in the same ways and they were enjoying the same sensations as if they were actively influencing the outcome.


When the two groups were asked to resell their lottery tickets, subjects who had selected their own numbers placed a higher value on them. They inherently saw more value in the fact that they had chosen their numbers


He had told participants they could quit any time they wanted, yet Delgado was surprised to find that many of them played for hours. One even asked to continue playing at home, even though they knew it was essentially a random experiment. In much the same way, people in casinos will endlessly pull slot machine levers and can believe they are on a winning streak, despite the fact that the odds are against them and the outcome is entirely beyond their control.


Similarly, it appears that people will continue to press pedestrian crossing and lift buttons even after being informed they are useless, so powerful and pleasurable is the lure of control. There is no question, Delgado concluded in the journal Psychological Science: “Humans demonstrate a preference for choice over non-choice, even when that choice confers no additional reward.”


Think positive

In fact, an enhanced illusion of control bias can be beneficial, motivating and even therapeutic. In behavioural psychology studies, participants are often split into two categories: those with an external locus of control (believing they are at the mercy of externalities) and those with an internal one (believing their future is determined by their ability to control themselves and effect positive outcomes). The greatest mental health is found in people with internal loci of control.


They tend to live longer, have more successful marriages and more intrinsic motivation in all aspects of life. Depressed people, on the other hand, often adopt an attitude of what positive psychology thought-leader Martin Seligman has termed “learned helplessness”. They see any attempt to control their environment as futile, and thus give up and lose all motivation.


With control such a powerful motivating factor in the human psyche, it has become a centrepiece not only of behavioural psychology but also of business and finance. Many companies, for example, strive to lure top talent and bolster revenues by giving employees and consumers a sense of empowerment, an internal locus of control.


Giving customers an element of choice heightened their overall satisfaction and made them less likely to ascribe negative qualities to the business

Consumer satisfaction

An element of choice can often be the easiest way to achieve this outcome. In his book, Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power Of Real Productivity, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Charles Duhigg devotes an entire chapter to ways in which business can use the illusion of control to enhance both employee wellbeing and consumer satisfaction.


First, people need plenty of opportunities to choose, which confers a sense of autonomy. “In experiments, people are more motivated to complete difficult tasks when those chores are presented as decisions rather than commands,” Duhigg notes. “That’s one of the reasons your cable company asks all those questions when you sign up for service. If they ask you if you prefer a paperless bill to an itemised statement, or the ultra-package versus the platinum line-up, or HBO to Showtime, you’re more likely to be moved to pay the bill each month. As long we feel a sense of control, we’re more willing to play along.”


Changing perceptions

A recent study by management consultancy McKinsey backed up Duhigg’s findings. It found that for consumer-facing businesses, giving customers an element of choice heightened their overall satisfaction and made them less likely to ascribe negative qualities to the business, regardless of the quality of service they received. The report concludes: “The more empowered, engaged, and updated customers are in the course of the journey, the less likely they are to assign blame when things go wrong.” A home-repair company, for example, discovered that, when customers were offered options for choosing their own scheduling instead of being given a time window, they were happier, even when they had to wait longer for a particular service.


Providing ample choices can also help with staff goodwill. Start-ups and tech companies in particular have tried to motivate workers by providing them with choices such as flexible hours and “open” holiday policies that essentially empower them to choose their own schedules and workflow. Each choice presented by the company is intended to reinforce in the worker a perception of control and self-determinism, so increasing their motivation and overall satisfaction.


Each choice presented by the company is intended to reinforce in the worker a perception of control and self-determinism, therefore increasing their motivation  

Let me choose

Discussing the link between control and motivation, Duhigg concludes that there are useful lessons to learn, not just as a worker or a customer but also in everyday life.


“Find a choice, any choice,” he suggests. If you are struggling with an full inbox, make a decision to start from the middle and work backwards. If you are tackling an overwhelming home project, make a conscious choice to start by tackling a certain room or area. As Duhigg explains: “It doesn’t essentially matter what you’re choosing because in the end, the specific choices we make matter less than the assertion of control.” n  

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