Illusion of Control – A to Z Challenge, Literary Terms

II’ve been getting good responses to my challenge this year, very much like last year. This makes me very glad that others enjoy this stuff as much as I do. Last year was a lot of fun to do and this year is proving to be quite the challenge. By that rate, next year will be a monster of epic proportions… unless I do something else.

Today we have Illusion of Control.


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Illusion of Control is the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control events, especially for events they do not influence. This necessity for control tends to happen in familiar situations, and in situations where people know the desired outcome.

Feedback or advice that seems to induce chance of success adds to the Illusion of Control, where feedback or advice that seems to induce chance of failure takes away from Illusion of Control.

This can be seen in Empire Strikes back, when Han Solo goes into a asteroid field, C3PO wars the odds of successfully navigation is 3,720 to 1. To which Han Solo replies, “Never tell me the odds”. Likely Han believes he has control over the situation, as he is a really good pilot. The fact he is successful only adds to that, but maybe even manipulating himself that if he stopped to think about it, he might have doubt, and doubt == death.

*only video I could find

This Illusion is weaker for depressed and/or low self-esteem individuals, and strong for individuals that have a high self-esteem and/or an emotional need to control the outcome. Stress, finance, and competitiveness adds to the need to try to control the outcome.

Interestingly, the tendency of Illusion of Control is overestimated for situations that are heavily chance-determined, and underestimated when someone actually has control of a situation. People also show a higher illusion when they are more familiar with a task or get a chance to practice at predicting the outcome.

One element to the Illusion of Control, that almost seems contradictory, is giving the responsibility of control to someone else. This is done by maximizing outcomes of the situation by making someone else make the decision. This is called Illusion of Control by Proxy. People will do this if they believe the other person has more knowledge or skill on a subject, such as medicine.

However, this can occur when someone else is perceived as being ‘luckier’. While feeling the need to control the situation or give up the reins of control to someone with an expertise; giving up control over an issue of luck and superstition is hardly rational. Yet people do it.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Royal, a gambler believes that Data is lucky and will help him win money. Even when Data, he still believe that Data can do it, despite no evidence to suggest that. Of course, Data turns the table and rather than rely on the illusion of control, he had complete control of the situation.

This can be seen when an office pool plays the lottery and they designate someone in the company to pick the numbers on the perception that he is more lucky. This can also play with Gambler’s Fallacy, that they believe the more times someone is ‘lucky’ the more likely they are to fail. It is an Illusion of Control in that a person believe they can predict when someone will fail.

In the above example, the gambler who thought Data to be lucky felt that Data was getting too lucky and began to bet against him. Data warned him not to do it, yet the more Data won, the more certain the gambler felt Data would lose. Which then he blamed Data for causing him to lose.

This can also be seen in the movie, ‘A Bronx Tale’, where a crime boss is betting on a game of dice and notices a character there who is deemed as unlucky. At first the crime boss states he doesn’t want this guy’s money to touch his, and later he is kicked out of the game. Later in the movie, it is shown that a horse bet made in the name of the crime boss lost because the unlucky guy bet on it. This is an Illusion of Control to try to control luck itself.


There are a few theories out there to try to explain why, as humans, we feel this need to control things in our lives, especially when we should know we don’t actually control things. One such theory that I believe is the closest is Self-Regulation Theory. Basically, it is part of our impulse control of desires. Throughout any given day, there are many things we desire to do. This is often from the Id of our mind. It is our Ego that regulates these desires.

When it comes to trying to control a situation, it comes from a desire that we are in control. Especially the more stressful it is, the greater the need for control becomes. Often it is our need for that control that adds to our stress. It becomes a puzzle with an unknowable answer.

As we learned in Confabulation, our mind hates not knowing the answer. In dealing with a situation that seems to have no influence by our actions, our minds invent a false sensation that we are actually in control so there is a solution to the puzzle, albeit a poor solution. It works some of the times, but the few times it does work, it is because the person doing it.

It may also be as simple as reward to our mind. We learned about rewards in Amygdala Hijack article, and having a sense of control gives us a good feeling. At the same times, having a loss of control sense makes us feel bad or depressed. Often times, people who suffer from depression claim they have no control of their lives or emotions.

It may be possible that we feel we are in more control a situation that we actually are is a form of Self-Serving Bias. We don’t want to feel bad about having no control, so instead, we do everything we can to feel good about the outcome of a random situation, that even if we lose, it is because of a mistake we made rather than it being outside of our control.

However, when we actually do have control of a situation, it is believed that it is a random fluke outside our control, is the reason that we lost. This is another demonstration of Self-Serving Bias. When an outcome is in our favor, we had something to do with it. If an outcome is not in our favor, it is the fault of something other than ourselves.

You might be thinking about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, where people try to control various elements of their lives. That is actually Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder. OCD is anxiety and the need to perform rituals to make a situation right again. I believe OCPD differs from the Illusion of Control, due to the fact that OCPD is trying to control the environment around them, rather than the outcome of a situation. An OCPD may still have an Illusion of Control and might be part of their OCPD, but it is best to consider Illusion of Control and OCPD as two separate things.

An instance of this, that is actually a bit of OCD, OCPD, and Illusion of Control, is a concept known to RPG (Tabletop) players known as, “Rolling Out Your Ones.” I’ll admit, I will do this right before I play a tabletop. Rolling out your ones is a concept that if your dice rolls a 1, it has become tainted, and there is a greater possibility that it will roll up 1 again. It’s a superstition. However, players believe if they keep rolling the dice over and over again, the dice can become ‘untainted’.

On a comic panel of Darth and Droids, this concept was explained a bit and an example was given about Pete:

Pete, being the highly logical, calculating person he is, rejects all of that as superstitious nonsense. He instead applies the scientific approach. Over the years, he’s collected somewhere around a thousand twenty-sided dice. Every so often, he gathers them all together. He sits down at a table and carefully and individually rolls each of the thousand dice, once. Of course, roughly a twentieth of them will roll a one. He takes those fifty-odd dice and rolls them a second time. After about an hour of concentrated dice rolling, he’ll end up with around two or three dice that have rolled two ones in a row. He takes those primed dice and places them in special custom-made padded containers where they can’t roll around, and carries them to all the games he plays.
Then, when in the most dire circumstances, where a roll of one would be absolutely disastrous, he pulls out the prepared dice. He now has in his hand a die that has rolled two ones in a row. Pete knows the odds of a d20 rolling three ones in a row is a puny one in 8,000. He has effectively pre-rolled the ones out of the die, and can make his crucial roll with confidence. Furthermore, being scientific about it means he knows that it doesn’t matter who rolls the die for the third time, so he has no qualms about sharing his primed dice with other players, if that’s what it takes to avoid disaster.

Pete here suffers from the Illusion of control and may have OCD and OCPD. Pete is also demonstrating something very similar to Gambler’s Fallacy.


Click image to go to

Now last year, I stated that Gambler’s Fallacy is taking previous outcomes to determine the next outcome. In the example of a coin flip, if it comes up heads 20 times, a gambler may believe that the next time it will come up tails. The reverse being that it will come up heads again.

Gambler’s Fallacy by itself is not a demonstration of Illusion of Control, but it can be used by someone who does have an Illusion of Control. We mentioned Lottery tickets up above. Some people who play the lottery, or gamble in other ways, believe that the more times they lose, the greater the chance they will win the next time. In this respect, this belief is both Gambler’s Fallacy, in that a long series of losses will soon equal a win, and an Illusion of Control, in that they can control the outcome by keep playing and losing.

Helping Writers

People have a need to be in control of their situation. They need to believe they have control, especially when they don’t. They also need to believe that when they have control and something fails, they didn’t truly have control, or some other element caused them to fail. We humans are highly complex and quite quirky when it comes to responsibility.

When it comes right to it, control is an illusion. We don’t nearly have the control we think we have. We try to lie to ourselves that the control we do have makes up for what we don’t have. More than that, if someone lacks complete control, they will lie further to believe that through some means, they have control of a situation.

My step-father was a big Florida State Football fan. I happened to walk in on a game that was close with a few minutes left, and I simply said they’d lose. They did. My step-father was furious with me, and truly believed that it was my saying so that prevented them from winning. There was no way that could happened, but he assigned me control that I didn’t have, to excuse why the team lost. He need something to blame. You better believe he’d feel vindicated if they won.

The true path to success, whether in life or for your character, is to understand what you can control, and what you can’t control. We have a lot of stress built around the things we can’t control and do whatever we can to change those outcomes.

This is seen in the movie Kung-Fu Panda. Shifu is under the belief that he has control in life, and that there are things that can be controlled. Oogway tells him that he must let go of the need of control in order to train Po in becoming the Dragon Warrior.

Some characters have such a need of control, that they will insist everything be done a certain way. This is almost to an OCPD standard (though not quite), so they can have the outcome they desire.

This is seen in the Burn Notice Scatter Point, where the villain, Timo, tries to control the plan at every step and the people. In fact, he is such a control freak, that he won’t reveal all the details of the plan to everyone and gets annoyed when people ask questions. Not only is Michael able to mess up the plans of Timo, but due to his nature of being a control freak, he’s able to convince the others of the team that this was something Timo planned the whole time.

Michael’s Voice Over: A certain kind of leader insists on controlling every aspect of an operation, so that nothing can possibly go wrong. The downside to insisting on controlling everything is that when something bad happens people tend to think it was all part of your plan.


A character will want things to go a certain way. The question is, what will they do when they realize they can’t control things? Will they accept it, and work with what they control and be patient with what they can’t? Or will they lie to themselves and believe they have more control than they actually do?

We want our characters to be great and honorable, but sometimes it is their hubris that they believe they are more capable than they actually are. This of course can lead to disastrous results. More importantly, the character may not be aware they are doing this. Something to think about.

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