The Illusion of Control and How It's Used Against You

When I was growing up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, some of the streetlights had push buttons, crowned by a handsome black-and-white sign reading:


Longtime New Yorkers sort of suspected that they didn’t do anything. And still, they pushed. Dinner parties were riven by debates worthy of the Reformation over those buttons and whether you were actually accomplishing anything by pushing them. Many people who had been pushing those buttons for decades swore that the light turned after. ...Then in 2004, the New York Times confirmed our worst fears: the buttons had been disconnected decades before.

A few years later, I found myself walking along Riverside Drive with a childhood friend who dutifully stopped at the crosswalk, and reached for the button.

“Didn’t you hear?” I asked, surprised. “It was in the Times. The buttons don’t work.”

“I know,” he said. His outstretched finger hesitated, and then continued toward the button as if of its own will. “Just in case,” he said apologetically.

--from The Up Side of Down by Megan McArdle

We humans love to think we have more control over our environment than we do. And we do some kooky things to get that feeling of control.

Megan McArdle's story about walk signs is extra funny to me, because I'm exactly the kind of person who'd push a non-functioning walk button. I push non-functioning "close-door" buttons in elevators too. Hey, just in case.

But it's the corporate world that offers us the most frustrating example of the control illusion: In modern office buildings, it's not uncommon to find dummy thermostats on walls throughout the building. They’re there because they satisfy peoples' need for control over their environment. People adjust them and feel better afterwards--in a creepy, cubicle farm version of the placebo effect. (Weird coincidence: I actually had a non-functioning thermostat in my office in my last corporate job. I wonder now if it was some kind of sign.)

This post is starting to sound a little depressing, isn't it? So let's take this idea of the illusion of control and do something positive with it. Let's apply it to the concept of consumer empowerment, one of Casual Kitchen's central themes. And I'm guessing that anyone who's been reading Casual Kitchen for any length of time should be ready for my next sentence: the companies selling stuff to us already know all about our unconscious desire for control.

Thus, if they can sell still more stuff to us by using the control illusion, they will. Actually, they already do. With that in mind, when might our subconscious desire for control hurt us in our pocketbooks? Where might there be possible pitfalls for the consumer?

I can think of a few examples:

Paying significantly more for organic food
Many (most?) forms of insurance
Home security systems
Car alarms
"Diet" foods
Cosmetic surgery
Aggressively trading your investments
Aggressive medical/surgical treatments
Taking megavitamins and supplements
(Readers, can you think of any other examples?)

Here's the conclusion: if you want to be an empowered consumer, and if you're thinking of spending your money in any of the above realms, be extra mindful of how your desire for control can be used against you.

What do you think? Where do you see the illusion of control in your world?

For further reading:
Placebo Buttons at You Are Not So Smart
Non-functional office thermostats at Wikipedia
Interesting profile of Ellen Langer, the psychologist who developed the illusion of control idea
Megan McArdle's intriguing book The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success which explores some of these topics in the context of life's successes and failures

Related Posts:
Money Sundays: How To Get Balanced, Consistently Useful Expert Advice
Yoga Mats, Subway, and the Azodicarbonamide Controversy: Chemical Phobia In the Media Age
Should I Be Paranoid About Grocery Store Loyalty Cards?
Retail Industry Ninja Mind Tricks
Lessons Learned From a Bathroom Renovation

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JCS said...

Candy Crush.

chacha1 said...

to add to that illusion-of-control list: statins and antidepressants.

Tsk tsk at NYC. In L.A., the walk buttons actually work. :-) There is a trick though. You have to wait until the opposite light turns green. If your light is already counting down, pushing the button will accomplish nothing. Wait till your light turns red.

There are numerous lights that require either a pedestrian to push the walk button, or a car to be waiting on the sensor, in order to change. An astonishing number of people don't seem to understand that the sensors exist.

Marcia said...

Interesting. The buttons work in my town.

Anyway, I do have a few comments.

I take a few supplements from time to time, and I have found that I am much healthier now that I do. (Otherwise I have a tendency to get sick a LOT.) This is on top of a healthy diet. Probably related to age/ stress/ kids/ people coming to work sick.

I believe strongly in certain amounts of insurance. We have enough term life to pay off the house if one of us goes. That's a no-brainer to me. And of course, health insurance.

I also prefer organic food for certain foods (dairy, the "dirty dozen"). I have found, especially, that local organic food - while it might be more expensive - also tastes a lot better than conventional grocery store produce. And it lasts a lot longer.