Are you in control?

Bias of Control

The desire to feel like we’re in control seems to be a very basic human need.

Are you in control?  Do you like to control your environment?

Well?  Were you successful in that endeavour?  C’mon, be honest.

BecauseControlis an illusion!

Let me give you an example from Singapore: You choose a durian from a street vendor which tastes delicious, so you assume that you are very skilled at selecting durian (when in fact, the whole batch just happens to be good).

Here’s another example: You play the lottery and win millions.  Therefore, you assume that this is (partly) the result of how good your luckynumbers are, even though lotteries are totally random and cannot be influenced by the numbers you chose.  But despite knowing and accepting this, you still think that the numbers you choose matter.  More on this later.

This illusion is strengthened by stressful and competitive situations, including that of financial trading; although people are more prone to overestimate their control, when the situations are heavily chance-determined in this chaotic and complex world.

Fortunately, this illusion does have positive traits as well.  It motivates us to persist at a task when we might otherwise have given up.  It urges us on, to do things, even when the chances of success are low.  Would we still apply for that job, if we knew how little control we had over the decision?  Definitely not, but if we do not apply for any jobs, we would never get a job, so we psych ourselves up, polish our résumé and rehearse our interview spiels.

Anyhow, let me return to the costly dangers of this bias – this illusion of control can be seen in the financial markets as traders often feel they have more control over the market than they really do.  Indeed, one study has shown that the more traders think they are in control (overconfidence), the worse their actual performances were (O’Creevy & Nicholson, 2010).

Thus, a word of caution for those who don’t respect the forces of randomness: When in the midst of randomness, let go of the need for control.  Float in it, experience it in that moment, try not to control its outcomebut deal with it as it comes.

The good news is that there is a lot in life that we can actually control, like, our reaction to ungovernable things that happen to us:

  • We smile and are not angry.
  • We live in the moment and stop looking ahead at the future.
  • We learn to accept the world as it isinstead of being annoyed with it, stressed by it, mad at it, despaired by it, or trying to change it into what we would like it to be.
  • We are never disappointed with how things turn out because we never expected anything; hence we just accept the outcome.
  • We practice self-leadership and that starts with self-care!
  • We appreciate that the world sucks.  Otherwise, we would all fall off.

 Sometimes, not being in control is the most beautiful thing in the world.

Which brings we back to that beloved ‘uncontrollable’ lottery and the dream of striking it big.  Just play numbers over 31 or use Quick Picks (random number generator).  No, it won’t improve your chances of winning the lottery but, if you DO win, it is likely to increase how much you win.  Why?  Studies show that most people play numbers based on special days of the month such as birthdays and anniversaries. Therefore, by picking numbers over 31 or using random Quick Picks, you’ll decrease your chances of splitting a big prize.

“If you want real control, drop the illusion of control.  Let life live you.  It does anyway” — Byron Katie

“A loss of control is always the source of fear.  It is also, however, always the source of change.” — James Frey


  1. Andy,

    Now that’s what I call intellectually stimulating conversation!

    If we need more cogs in the wheel, can’t share it even at university level…

    We just teach them the tools to Management by Objectives and SMART goals.

    This way, they will know what to do when they see the carrot and the stick 😉

  2. TAcomob,

    I like the last one best!! Brought a smile!! The world sucks, otherwise we will fall off! Genius!!

    We are suck by gravity and the earth suck by sun!! We all sucks muahahahah !!

    While I apply as much as possible the concept of TAcomob in my life and my work, not many buys it . But it’s ok. It’s TAcomob right.

    My boss’s boss ask me. How I develop my team. I say, be aware of their strength and allow them to build on it…

    Although not the actual words, the body language and “convincing” is “you can’t say that, too low level, not strategic enough” …
    My boss even ask me what happen later…LOL. She told me to position it better, I say ok. Your business is my business. I will let off me smoke machine next time… Lol anyway I prefer to stay at the low level truthfully than think I can “control” my team, my universe

    • SI, your development strategy is spot on and in line with those management gurus who proclaim:
      1) Know your talent.
      2) Develop your talent.
      3) Invest in your talent.
      They recommend us to focus on our top talents because they provide the best opportunity for success (up to each individuals subjective definition).
      Trying to improve ones less talented areas has proven as not so fruitful.
      I guess your bosses have not read enough of those “strategic management books” to spot the simplicity of your strategy.

  3. Shhhh!!!

    At this rate, you’ll reveal all the secrets of being a Grasshopper!

    • I have nothing to hide (besides the one or the other of my mishaps, ho ho ho).

      Let’s share the secrets, which should not be secrets in the first place but should be taught at school. Maybe not in primary school, but at least at university.

      The truth is not everyone could be a grasshopper. The world would not function properly – ahem, I should say – would no longer function as it does right now.

      In the same manner not all of us could be 100% passive Index Investors all of the time. The stock markets would not function properly – ahem, I should say – would no longer function like they did in the past.

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