Bias du Jour #8

by F.

“I was shopping in a toy story with my family one Sunday,” writes Daniel M. Wegner in The Illusion of Conscious Will. “While my kids were taking a complete inventory of the stock, I eased up to a video game display and started fiddling with the joystick. A little monkey on the screen was eagerly hopping over barrels as they rolled toward him, and I got quite involved in moving him along and making him hop, until the phrase ‘Start Game’ popped into view.” Even though, Wegner says, he had been playing a pre-game demo, he “was under the distinct impression that [he] had started some time ago.” This anecdote exemplifies a phenomenon known as

The Illusion of Control: We tend to believe we can control outcomes over which we have no influence.

It has been observed in a number of experimental settings. For instance, in one experiment researchers falsely accused participants in a reaction-time study of damaging a computer by hitting the wrong key. While none of the participants had actually hit the wrong key, the pace of the reaction time test made it possible. Later, a confederate of the researchers told certain subjects he saw them hit the key. These subjects became more likely to confess that they had, in fact, hit the wrong key. Further, they confabulated details consistent with this belief.

Cites: Langer, E. J. & Roth, J. (1975). Heads I win, tails it’s chance: The illusion of control as a function of the sequence of outcomes in a purely chance task. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 34, 191-198. Langer, E. J. (1982); The Illusion of Control. In Kahneman D., Slovic P., & Tversky, A. (Eds.). Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. New York: Cambridge University Press; Wegner, D.M. (2002). The Illusion of Conscious Will. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; Kassin, S.M., and K.L. Kiechel. (1996). The social psychology of false confessions: Compliance, internalization, and confabulation. Psychological Science 7: 125-128.